News/India: RIGHTS-INDIA: Sex Workers Assert Rights

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Subject: News/India: RIGHTS-INDIA: Sex Workers Assert Rights
From: by way of Melanie Orhant (Sfbayswan@aol.com )
Date: Tue Aug 24 1999 - 16:44:30 EDT


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Thank you, Melanie Orhant

*********

August 19, 1999
FYI
(South Asia Citizens Web)
------------------------
Copyright 1999 InterPress Service, all rights reserved.
          Worldwide distribution via the APC networks.

                      *** 16-Aug-99 ***

Title: RIGHTS-INDIA: Sex Workers Assert Rights

By Sujoy Dhar

CALCUTTA, Aug 16 (IPS) - Mala Singh and Sadhana Mukherjee spent
the prime of their youth pandering to male passions in the dark
alleys of this eastern Indian city's sleaze districts.

They took their share of police brutality, vicious pimps and
and the social opprobium that goes with their profession - far
removed from ideas such as legalised prostitution, workers rights
and dignity of labour far removed.

But times are changing and the two are determined to transform
negative social attitudes prevailing against their trade - often
the only option available to poor, unskilled women in a capitalist
and patriarchal society.

''In most discussions, prostitution and trafficking are
deliberately clubbed together and the number of women and girls
who are trafficked deliberatley exaggerated,'' says Mala, 40.

''It is rarely acknowledged that for most sex workers,
entering the sex industry is not a result of coercion or an act
of desperation but a rational choice.''

According to Mala, who was invited to speak at the
'International Conference on Trafficking ow Women,' held in
Geneva in June, prostitution is often sought to be banned in the
name of checking trafficking and the forcible entry of minor
girls into the profession.

''What is overlooked in this sensationalist and moralist
approach is that sex workers are working women and men, who like
many other people, happen to be engaged in a marginal, sexist,
explotiative and low-status job.''

What gave Mala and Sadhana a chance to gain recognition for
their profession and some semblance of internationally accepted
standards, such as compulsory use of condoms and the right to say
no, was the global menace of HIV.

''No condom no sex is our slogan in Calcutta and it has
already lowered perceptibly the incidence of HIV and
sexually transmitted diseases (STD),'' says Sadhana.

As secretary of the Asia Pacific Sex Worker's Association
Sadhana was invited to speak on 'prevention strategies' at the
'Action on AIDS in Asia Pacific Communities,' programme at
Sydney in May this year.

At the conference Sadhana stressed the importance of health
consciousness among sex workers and drew from the experience of
the 'HIV/STD Intervention Programme' begun in Calcutta's red-
light district of Sonagachi in 1992.

The Programme, hailed by the World Health Organisation (WHO)
as a 'best practice' first gave the long- oppressed sex workers
the consciousness that they were complete persons with emotional
and material needs.

By 1996, Mala and Sadhana had set up the Durbar Mahila
Samanayay Committee (DMSC) an organisation which now represents
40,000 sex workers in West Bengal state and leads a movement for
legalisation of prostitution and extension of worker's rights.

The DMSC taught its members to physically resist attempts to
force unprotected sex on them and though quite a few sustained
injuries in the process by 1998 condom use was as high as 90
percent compared to less than three percent in 1992.

Since 1996 Calcutta's sex workers have had the benefit of a
cooperative which doles out loans to members at low interest and
helps aged sex workers with self-employment schemes.

But their most important endeavour is to gain legal
recognition for prostituion - an issue on which opinion is still
highly divided in this socially conservative country.

''They work with their bodies and hence they want workers'
rights,'' says Mrinal Kanti Dutta, the present director of the
HIV/STD Intervention Programme who has no hesitation saying he is
himself the son of sex worker.

''If mainstream society denies prostitution workers' rights on
the grounds that it is harmful it would be sheer hypocrisy since
workers in the liquor and tobacco trade, which are also harmful,
are granted those rights,'' Dutta said.

According to former director of the Programme, Dr. Samarjit
Jana, since sex workers fufil and important social need
prostitution must be seen as a profession.

''Under the patriarchal system there is always a need for
sexual services outside the family and hence prostitution would
always be there,'' Jana said.

''If sex workers are armed with trade union rights they can

articulate their problems and avail of government schemes for
themselves and their children bettter,'' he said.

However, Tapati Bhowmik, coordinator of Sanlaap (Dialogue), an
non-government organisation (NGO) working with the children of sex
workers feels that it is unrealistic for so marginalised a group
to make such demands.

''They do not have access to basics such as shelter,
education and health care and it is unrealistic that a government
which does not even acknowledge trafficking in girl children would
agree to provide sex workers facilities like insurance.''

There is support for the proposal from veteran trade union
leader and former federal home minister, Indrajit Gupta, whose
Communist Party of India (CPI) forms part of the Left Front

coalition ruling West Bengal state.

But the sex workers know that their best bet lies in
transforming themselves and their trade by making them more
responsible.

In May they took a major step in that direction by forming a
self-regulatory board comprising sex workers and people from
other walks especially to regulate the entry of young girls into
the profession.

''Newcomers are now presented before the board and if we find
someone being coerced or persuaded to engage in the profession as
a minor we stop it,'' Mala said.

In three of the 17 red light areas of Calcutta, Rambagan,
Sethbagan and Tollygunge, child prostitution has been stopped
despite personal risks from pimps and crime bosses.

''The three areas account for 1120 sex workers and it hurts
the pimps and other people who make a living out of trafficking
in minors,'' Mala said.

Sadhana said she was well aware of the hurdles ahead. ''Our
strategy is to first strengthen the Asia-Pacific network and
then launch the battle for workers rights and respectability for
the profession.'' (END/IPS/sd/rdr/99)

Origin: New Delhi/RIGHTS-INDIA/
                              ----

       [c] 1999, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)
                     All rights reserved

  May not be reproduced, reprinted or posted to any system or
  service outside of the APC networks, without specific
  permission from IPS. This limitation includes distribution
  via Usenet News, bulletin board systems, mailing lists,
  print media and broadcast. For information about cross-
  posting, send a message to <wdesk@ips.org>. For
  information about print or broadcast reproduction please
  contact the IPS coordinator at <online@ips.org>.


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