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They stare as year-old Geetha Das, sporting kohl-lined eyes, strides by purposefully — but she barely glances at these pimps and middlemen. Das has been a resident of Sonagachi, which is home to about 7, sex workers, since She was 16 years old at the time. Society should first look at itself before condemning us… Did anyone give us a good job?
Das explained that for her, self-respect is everything — a curious term considering that sex workers in India are ostracised from mainstream society. Most of us have no education and two to three .
Yes, we can work as domestic help to support our families. But even then men force themselves onto us. One woman who did not want to use her real name in order to protect her identity, said money was a big lure for her, but she said the thrill of the chase was even more fascinating. She has a husband and a young son living elsewhere in Kolkata.
My only fear is that my son will find out about my work. That is my deepest fear. The year-old explained that her earnings from the trade have helped her pay for expensive medical treatment for her parents — which she would not otherwise have been able to afford.
Older sex workers usually see their clientele disappear — like year-old Purnima Chatterjee, who was born into a large and impoverished family and was pushed into the sex trade by her own father. This was my destiny. God wanted me to bear the burden of raising my five siblings and care for my parents.
But now, I have no one and my earnings have dwindled. What will happen to me in a few years? These women are members of a society flourishing on the fringes of mainstream India — a society shunned and condemned in public, but frequented furtively by many. Although prostitution is illegal in India, the government does not interfere in Sonagachi. Perhaps it is due to the culture of the state, its history of communism and sensitivity towards the marginalised. InDurbar took steps to unionise the sex workers of Sonagachi. The rationale was simple — the power was always on the side of the client, who usually preferred not to use condoms.
By forming a collective of sex workers, Durbar empowered them to say no to sex without condoms. The experiment was so successful that in time, 65, sex workers across the country would this collective. Today, all the sex workers of Sonagachi are members of the union, and they refuse to have sex with their clients without a condom.
Durbar also helps newcomers to Sonagachi, taking them off the streets and housing them in temporary homes. Two weeks of intensive counselling takes place to ascertain whether these women are minors, and whether they have been trafficked. Minors are handed over to the state government and reunited with families. Women who are open to other forms of employment are trained in various vocations and placed in jobs. Those who still want to enter the sex trade are taught to protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases and informed of their rights.
According to Durbar, every year betweenyoung women come to Sonagachi, hoping to make money for a better life. Land prices have gone up in the vicinity of Sonagachi and realty developers are eyeing the area. The mobile phone has provided anonymity and an alternate means of doing business for sex workers.
As dusk falls, it is time for business to begin. The many temples in Sonagachi have shut for the day. Bollywood music floats on the air, accompanied by laughter from houses with names like Night Lovers and Love Nest. Her gaze settles on the pimps lining the filthy streets of Sonagachi — where the holy Ganges River gushes furiously out of open taps and pipes, running its purifying course through the homes of the Sonagachi women.
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