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Empowerment of Sex Workers

Empowerment of Sex Workers The Kolkata Experience SWATI GHOSH This is in response to Moni Nag


Empowerment ofSex Workers

The Kolkata Experience


his is in response to Moni Nag’s article on ‘Sex Workers in Sonagachi’ (EPW, December 3, 2005). The unique success of the STD/HIV intervention programme in Sonagachi has been described in the article as an active “catalyst” for initiating radical social change towards “empowerment” of the sex workers. The remarkable success in controlling the spread of HIV/AIDS and achieving a consistently low rate of sexually-transmitted diseases among the sex workers is to be acknowledged in no uncertain terms. But it is surprising that in highlighting the sex workers as “pioneers of a revolution” and “heralding the struggle for empowerment against the powerful vested in sex trade”, the aspect of work and the sex workers’ demand for rights in Sonagachi receives only a mere mention in Nag’s writing.

The contemporary movement of Sonagachi is also significant with respect to its success in extending its approach from medical intervention to social and moral issues associated with the sex worker question. The intervention programme brought to the fore the aspects of “agency” emerging from “sex work” for the sex workers who have claimed to establish their rights as workers in the entertainment industry. But either by deliberate choice or by omission does not address the implication of the demand for workers’ rights for sex workers that was integral and constitutive of the movement. In the article, mention of workers’ rights appears in the section elaborating on the conferences of sex workers as merely one among the several topics for discussion – when the core essence of the movement was demand for worker-status leading to the materialisation of a “sex workers’ manifesto”.

On the question of empowerment, the success of the Sonagachi model is described in terms of the sex workers taking part in the “structure, decisionmaking and implementation” of the project where as many as 400 sex workers are working as peer-educators and that “a few held supervisory positions – a significant development” in terms of empowerment. There is no doubt that the sex workers as paid staff of the project learned to voice their words and express their opinion but whether this empowerment was anything beyond participation in the project needs to be explicated. If the empowerment was an outcome of the movement and could enhance the autonomy and choice of the sex workers at work or could produce an enabling situation to unsettle the network of sex trade and liberate the sex workers from the clutches of those vested with power, was not considered worthy of discussion. The notion of the “emergence of a silent revolution” perhaps deserves further elaboration in terms of “rights to self-determination” of the female sex worker with the nature and extent of empowerment spelt out.

This rejoinder is not to belittle the achievements of Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC) acquired at high cost. Rather, this is a critical concern about the movement trying to ensure a better living and more dignified life for sex workers. In my opinion, even if the activities of the sex workers’ forum fall short of steering a “revolution”, the impact of the movement is immense in terms of generating confidence among them as workers and in reducing the societal moral stigma towards them. But I would argue that the aspect of empowerment of the sex workers cannot be disentangled from the notion of “sex as work” and has to be addressed keeping in mind the heterosexual norms within which a sex worker has to ply. The social welfare component of the forum’s activity (the ones mentioned by Nag) includes non-formal education, drop-in centres, coaching classes, vocational training and cultural functions for children apart from the formation of a cooperative treatment for HIV-infected members, counselling for HIV-positive sex workers and non-sex worker members of the society are great achievements in themselves. We find a detailed account of the “steps towards empowerment” in the formation and activities of DMSC, but the relevance of the demand for worker-status as the crucial basis of the movement has been conspicuous by its absence in the article by Nag.

In choosing not to address the issue of sex work, the aspect of empowerment of the sex workers loses much of its import and the claim for “silent revolution” does not become meaningful. From this perspective, I would like to focus on the implications of the demand for workerstatus, both at the functional and the discursive level. Further, I would like to add that the demand for workers’ rights and the projected emancipation of the sex workers as an outcome of the movement is contested from within the purview of “sex as work” and this is where it differs from other kinds of labour forms.1

Response as Workers

From the initiation of the intervention Programme, a demand for workers’ rights marked the movement of the sex workers at Sonagachi. The attempt to erase the image of a diseased body and inclusion of sex workers as a category of workers was an integral part of the DMSC agenda. In claiming workers’ rights, the sex workers were seeking legal equality with other workers. While making their demands, they did not stake their identity to sexuality but to work. The demand for right to work implied an erasure of the moral stigma associated with the profession and entry into civil society as non-stigmatised women workers. It was a democratic claim seeking a change of the conventional gender meaning regarding sex work, to be achieved with state support and sanction. The dubious stand of the state regarding sex work was also exposed to a large extent in their mode of interaction.2 The sex workers acted as a collective. The most common metaphor that they used while referring to their forum was family (‘Durbar-parivar’). They did not want to pursue individual interests in terms of property or legal problems and relied on

Economic and Political Weekly April 1, 2006 the intimate bonds of kinship while voicing their concern for the community. The forum organised collective action against police harassment and unjustified arrests in the red-light areas of the city and the suburban pockets where sex workers were yet to get organised. The forum organised rallies and peace meetings, inviting representatives of other associations and NGOs, even if they were hostile to their stand.

The forum was also a body through which the community negotiated with the outside world. The leaders of political parties, academics, artists and media celebrities sympathetic to their cause, were often invited to participate and express their solidarity with the family of sex workers. The forum organised processions and sit-in demonstrations in support of the brothel sex workers against police atrocities in neighbouring Bangladesh. They supported and submitted memoranda on common agendas with leftist trade unions against the economic measures of the structural adjustment programme of the central government. The forum invented strategies to interact with various state agencies that were instrumental for implementing welfare measures and proposed for the formation of a selfregulatory board for control of entry into sex work.

In the process, the sex workers emerged as a conspicuous community negotiating their claims. They acquired a political language and emergence of the sex worker as a speaking subject seeking political identity was a novel turn in this period. The elite cultural space also lent a hearing. The sex workers were invited to participate in the seminars and conventions at academic institutions and the print and electronic media gave a wide coverage. Within a short span, a number of literary works mushroomed with female sex workers as protagonists trying to resist her marginalised position. Public opinion began to favour the healthy, disease-free sex worker replacing her profane and immoral image.3 The sex workers too were claiming to have achieved a new subject position within their immediate public sphere.

Rhetoric of Work

The demand for worker-status was important from the point of HIV intervention because as long as sex work was identified with disease, sin and crime, it was difficult to normalise the activity within the protocols of work. The sex workers responded to the initiative towards health awareness and wanted to be included within the organised labour having the right to work, choice and collective bargaining. Their strategy of negotiation with the state included the modern rhetoric of autonomy and right to collective bargaining of a worker within the organised labour.

The sex workers were no longer passive objects of inquiry as in the colonial times. They used the campaign against the AIDS epidemic “creatively” and pushed the state welfare agenda beyond health claims to resist unfair legal practices, regular police raids in brothels and frequent arrests of sex workers. They advocated licensing of sex work and repeal of the ITPA. In the charter of demands, at the public meetings, in the pamphlets issued, sex workers formulated their rights through slogans that said: “sex work is real work, we demand workers’ rights”. While claiming workers’ rights, they did not ask for better work conditions or removal of the spatial quarantine that restricted their movement; their contention was assertion of agency, proclamation of human rights and equality with other workers.

Attempts at negotiation with the state and demands for inclusion as citizensubject could be achieved within an environment of dialogue, not conceivable during the colonial period. The colonial state attempted to transform the traditional lifestyles of the sex workers into “substantive entities” through application of medical science and statistics.4 The postcolony projected a homogeneous category of healthy sex workers to which they were eager participants. AIDS prevention initiatives transformed them into a target of welfare through a process of knowledge formation. An elaborate system of surveillance operated over them with the obvious aim to promote the sexual well-being.5 Extending beyond mere enumeration and registration, “technologies of power” aimed at reorienting the behavioural pattern and sexual modes susceptible to infection.

Post-Colonial Welfare

Before the advent of AIDS in the 1990s, police raids and harassment were the only signs of state presence in Sonagachi. This changed with the STD/HIV intervention programme and effective participation of the sex workers. The sex workers in the red-light zones became an important stock of sexual bodies possessing the potential to infect the general population. The site of intervention was no more the body alone. The widely publicised prevention measures reflected the concern for public health in considering the sex workers in need of education about safe-sex measures and “scientific” forms of contraception. The welfare agenda of the state included observation and regulation of sexual behaviour rather than mere physical examination of the body for both the sex workers and their prospective clients, although the question of morality was not addressed.

The possession of a safe and disease-free body became crucial in achieving workerstatus for the sex workers. Information regarding AIDS control was projected as a “public good” with positive externalities for citizens across the globe as intervention in health policies supposedly produced a “positive spill over effect through creation of knowledge” often beyond state initiative [World Bank 1997]. In this system of welfare administration, the sex workers watched over themselves and others. To watch was to care and caring was a mode of watching. The watched felt obliged to respond to the initiative of the careprovider and modified their behaviour. As a consequence, regular health check-ups were undertaken almost as a voluntary response of the sex workers. Strikingly, condom use – a male contraceptive – became a proxy to ensure safe-sex practice among them. The sex worker had to bear the onus of ensuring prevention from infection for male clients and in the process emerged as the object of welfare, while her reproductive health or right to use contraception was only incidental.6

In adopting the technologies of observation the community entered the “field of knowledge” regarding the present as well as the future sexual well-being of the population. Strategies of persuasion, counselling and advice followed. The concern for the sex workers’ well-being seemed to evolve from the urge to guarantee a regular flow of income from healthy, infectionfree bodies of workers in entertainment industry. A network of familiarity, trust and hierarchical social order between the observer and the observed of the same community was put to use in implementing discipline through the employment of the peer educators – most of whom were ex-sex workers or independent practitioners of the trade. Observation occurred in a multilayered network, where the observer and the observed were closely known to each other and lived as neighbours or co-workers. The information collection system through ex-sex workers was cost-effective and efficient in

Economic and Political Weekly April 1, 2006

utilising an already existing network of supervision.

While the sex worker longed for the position of the citizen-subject in a civil society, she belonged to a world of subjection. The liberal, paternalist state included her in the welfare agenda and she was not barred from participating in rights movements, if not as a part of organised labour, as an individual subject. But in spite of being able to act collectively, the sex worker did not have the power to assert her claim either as a worker or as a citizen. Her freedom of movement was physically restricted within the red-light zones. She was a citizen with voting rights but without the voter’s identity card essential to exercise the right. She could not dwell anywhere in the residential areas of the city as an independent, rent-paying tenant for practising “immoral activities on commercial terms”. Children of sex workers were refused admission to both public and private schools. Often a fake name of the father of the child had to be stated in school admission forms. If the mother chose to disclose the nature of her occupation, the child was socially ostracised.

But the sex worker was different from other workers even without the moral implications of her work. She was the complex of an outcast worker offering non-reproductive, non-affective heterosexual service to be consumed on the site of her body through the market. She had to deliver pleasure in compliance with the desire of another in her work. The “personal implication” of her work denied social insertion as a worker and bereaved her of the individuality of a citizen.7 Inclusion into state welfare schemes granted her equality with other workers but she was subjected to a constant marginalisation. Involvement in collective bargaining could not empower her at work, yet she promised to serve better with a healthy, robust body. The postcolonial sex worker identity was thus constituted by the aspirations for a citizensubject and the actuality of an overtly sexual entity. In effect, she was part political subject aspiring for citizen-subject status through workers’ rights and part empirical subject with the concreteness of her bodily existence.8 While the former would grant her universal worker status, her particularity barred her from the protocols of citizenship. The uneven “politics of citizenship” denied her entry into civil society from where she was always already excluded in being embedded in body. She remained within and beyond the reach of liberation; beyond the efforts of modernity and yet constituted by it.




1 The aspect of work is a much debated issue among the feminist academics and activists. The various schools of thought within feminist discourse, broadly identifies sex work as freedom of contract (the liberal position), subordination of labour (the socialist school), subordination of sex (the radical feminists) and empowerment of sex workers in reversal of subordination (the sex radicals). All these positions have taken up the issue of work in sex work to be entangled with the aspect of sexuality rendering sex work unique from other activities. In context of the sex workers movement of Sonagachi, the aspect of “work” has acquired new dimensions specific to the situation that requires thorough examination.

2 The forum of sex workers (DMSC) wanted the repeal of the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act (ITPA). Section 15 of the act allowed the police to conduct raids on brothels without a warrant based on the mere belief that an offence was being committed. The response of the government was to commission studies by the National Commission of Women, organise workshops, and initiate networking with SAARC members’ nations on trafficking of women across the border. The child prostitution was being banned and legally enforced. However, recommendations of the National Law School, Bangalore, regarding the reform of ITPA were not consulted [Kotiswaran 2001]. In 1989, the law reform initiatives undertaken by the central government formulated and “nearly passed a loathsome and potentially discriminative” AIDS Prevention Bill (233). The National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO) later drafted a National AIDS Policy that was “more progressive” (234) and characterised the issue as more than simple public health measure in course of its HIV prevention efforts.

3 It is to be noted that the term sex worker or ‘jouna karmi’ immediately gained currency replacing the various indigenous terms and brought the sex workers’ work to the fore – she became a worker earning her living from sexual labour. The different connotations of the various indigenous terms such as the, ‘beshya’, ‘barbonita’, ‘patita’, ‘baaiji’, ‘ganika’, ‘barangana’, ‘randi’, ‘khanki’ or even the more recent ‘liner-meye’, were homogenised under the umbrella-term sex worker.

4 Indian sex workers were defined as criminals according to several legislations in the colonial period that required them to get enlisted with the state authority for periodic medical examination. The sex workers were bodily subjected to medical check-up and those infected with venereal diseases were treated within legal confinements. The sex workers who fled to avoid registration were punished when identified as defaulters. The enumeration of them by religion and caste was taken up in the census of colonial India as early as 1872 [Joardar 1985]. Recording of births, deaths and number of children in the brothels was followed by registration of pimps and brothelkeepers. Regulation through registration, checkups and treatment was to provide the state with knowledge about the “subversive” act of sex work that was “immoral, seditious and diseased” [Chatterjee 1992; Banerjee 1998].

5 The techniques of surveillance on the sex workers during the post-colonial period have been elaborately dealt in Ghosh 2005.

6 It may be mentioned in this context that in spite of the projection of immense success of the Sonagachi model in terms of condom usage, the statistical exercise of estimating “compensating differential” for condom use among the sample of sex workers, indicate a differential of 79 per cent (IV estimate) and 66 per cent (FIML estimate) – representing a rather “significant disincentive against practising safe sex” [Rao et al 2003]. The policy implications that follow are interesting. The demand-side approach would attempt to increase awareness regarding HIV/ AIDS information among clients to enhance their willingness to use condoms. The supplyside approach would tend to decrease competitiveness between sex workers who use condoms and those that do not. The former could be achieved through collective effort of the sex workers in raising awareness about AIDS and refusing to sell sex without condoms – as in Sonagachi. The latter was to be undertaken as a state initiative instituting sanction against condom-free sex and would require legalisation of the profession. Although the economic compulsion of the sex worker to go for condomfree sex and the social sanction towards the unwillingness of the clients to use condoms, was left outside the purview of the paper.

7 Gorz argues that it is not enough for an activity to be produced for the market and be remunerated for it to be work. An activity has to be free from the confinements of private sphere for social insertion as citizens – such as it is not in sex work [Gorz 1988].

8 The discursive notion of the split-self of the sex worker at work where projection of the political and empirical subject in one, has been elaborated in Ghosh 2004.


Banerjee, S (1998): Dangerous Outcasts: The Prostitute in Nineteenth Century Bengal, Seagull Books, Calcutta.

Chatterjee, R (1992): The Queen’s Daughters: Prostitutes as an Outcast Group in Colonial India, Bergen.

Ghosh, S (2004): ‘Shadow Lines of Citizenship: Prostitutes’ Struggle over Workers’ Rights’, Identity Culture and Politics: An Afro-Asian Dialogue, 5: 1 and 2.

– (2005): ‘Surveillance in Decolonised Social Space: The Case of Sex Workers in Bengal’, Social Text, 83.

Gorz, A (1988): Critique of Economic Reason, Verso, London, p 143.

Joardar, B (1985): Prostitution in Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century Calcutta’, Inter-India Publications, New Delhi.

Kotiswaran, P (2001): ‘Preparing for Civil Disobedience: Indian Sex Workers and the Law’, Boston College Third World Law Journal, XXI: 2.

Rao, V, I Gupta, M Lokshin, S Jana (2003): ‘Sex Workers and the Cost of Safe Sex: The Compensating Differential for Condom Use among Calcutta Prostitutes’, Journal of Developmental Economics, 71.

World Bank (1997):Confronting AIDS: Public Priorities in a Global Epidemic, Policy Research Report, Oxford University Press, New York.

Economic and Political Weekly April 1, 2006

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