Durbar, a large collective of sex workers in West Bengal, is working to ensure the rights of this largely marginalised section of society.
Sex work, considered the oldest profession in the world, remains a taboo even in the 21st century. In countries such as India, where a confused sense of morality runs high, women, men and other genders on the spectrum involved in sex work remain subject to social ostracism and discrimination. As laws remain ambiguous about sex work and activities surrounding it, trafficking and violence remain grim realities in the trade. Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee or Durbar (‘indomitable’ or ‘unstoppable’ in Bengali) in short is a sex workers’ collective that has several networks managed and run by sex workers, expanding over the years according to the needs of the community of over 65,000 sex workers.
Durbar was initiated by its current chief advisor, Dr Smarajit Jana, who was involved with others in 1992 as part of a public health programme for HIV Prevention. Durbar finds its roots in one of the biggest red light districts in south-east Asia, Sonagachi, which is located in the northern part of Kolkata, the capital of the eastern Indian state of West Bengal. The initial programme involved distribution of condoms for HIV Prevention among other steps, but Dr Jana narrated, “The reality is that negotiation for use of condoms depends on power. With most of the workers being women, they have been by their gender, economic status and image in society, considered lower in the hierarchy as opposed to the male clients. This idea led to the need for mobilisation and collectivisation of the community and in 1995, the new structure for Durbar was in place, which is now a model followed by a large majority of intervention programmes.”
The next few years saw education of sex workers’ children, soft skills training, cultural activities and sports events as well as understanding of financial and administrative matters for the sex workers being a part of the initiatives by the collective. Durbar has also expanded its network to a large number of sex workers across the state of West Bengal. “The sex workers who now are completely in charge of the organisation also run a hostel for their children. Durbar also lends a socio-political space to women from marginalised communities and women who are employed as domestic workers, unorganised labours as well as from indigenous communities,” he added.
The nature of sex work is often found contentious by moral purists and the law prevailing in India. At times, sex workers who have taken up the profession by choice or economic necessity are blindly equated with those who have been trafficked, which further makes it difficult to ensure and implement rights. Dr Jana added, “Morality shouldn’t be mixed with the idea of choice, or in the situation where agency is asserted and the sex worker asserts their right over their own body. It is difficult for privileged sensibilities to understand that most of the women/others here are migrant women who barely have marketable skills when they come from small towns and villages, and take up the profession as it offers economic independence which would not be possible otherwise.”
Even as sex trafficking remains a legitimate concern, Dr Jana says, “Durbar does try to assess those who enter the red light districts through counselling and our anti-trafficking programmes are aimed at this issue. However, a sex worker is not always someone who has been trafficked, and I would estimate about 12-14 pc of the women in this trade are trafficked.”
Speaking on the legal situation, Dr Jana, who was a part of a court appointed panel in 2011 in the Supreme Court of India for a case surrounding sex work shares, “Sex work per se is not exactly illegal but all activities surrounding it is, making things complicated.” Lack of clarity in law leads to no legal recourse for those who need it, and as Durbar strongly believes, sex worker rights are human and/or women’s rights.
Strength of independence
Even as Durbar finds occasional grants from governmental bodies for its HIV prevention programme and through event-specific fund raising, most of the activities undertaken by this collective are self-funded. “Durbar runs majorly on self-generated funds. The women had even sent their children’s football team to Denmark last year,” stated Dr Jana.
The rights of the marginalised, discriminated and disregarded section of society that most self-righteous people would choose to blindside are being addressed by the sex workers themselves. A collective that is growing and evolving with time, Durbar has been a tremendous display of solidarity and resilience by the sex workers, and a path to self-sufficiency.
We will be delving deeper into the lives of the women in Sonagachi. Watch this space for more stories.