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Just Doing My Job

Prostitutes in India are insisting the only way to protect themselves against AIDS is through their own empowerment.
 
 
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Kolkata's most famous red light district desperately needs a fresh coat of paint. But something new is happening under the surface of the district's century-old crumbling houses and narrow by-lanes. Prostitutes here are insisting on being called sex workers, and their growing role as anti-AIDS activists has moved the debate that swirls around them beyond condoms and safe sex.

As uniformed schoolgirls dart between bicyclists and honking taxis, a prostitute hands out safe sex leaflets to passersby, while another woman chants, "The women of the street are showing the way." They are among India's newest shock troops in the fight against spiraling HIV infection rates.

"There is no wizardry in distributing condoms," says Mrinal Kanti Dutta, who runs Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC), a self-help group run by sex workers since 1995. "To combat malaria you can give out mosquito nets. But you also need to drain the ponds. What you need here is social and political empowerment.

"When sex workers don't think their work is bad, that's when they can say no, when they can insist on condoms," says Dutta, who grew up in the brothels of Sonagachi, as the district is known. Even as his mother worked as a prostitute, Dutta went to school, and became one of the first of the neighborhood kids to graduate.

It's a controversial idea: prostitution as bona fide work, not naked exploitation. For years, government policy at best tried to "rehabilitate" prostitutes. But Dutta says, "We are against rehabilitation because it implies this profession is bad. You can't just put some woman on stage, give her a sewing machine and say she is rehabilitated."

Dutta's organization, funded by the government's National AIDS Control Organization, got an unexpected shot in the arm when Melinda Gates showed up at the office. The Gates Foundation has promised $200 million to combat AIDS in India. DMSC is being considered a potential model program.

A U.S. National Intelligence Council report put the number of HIV-infected people in India between 5 and 8 million in 2002, and rising exponentially. In Sonagachi, where some 9,000 women work the streets and brothels, however, Dutta says condom usage has climbed to 80 percent and infection rates are holding steady at about 8 to 11 percent. (HIV prevalence in prostitutes in other cities has reportedly reached 30-50 percent.) Kolkata's mayor even proposed issuing prostitutes trade licenses in return for mandatory testing.

Sex workers turned down the proposal, believing testing would be a human rights violation, driving sex workers underground and away from STD clinics.

If sex workers organize, goes the thinking at the local organization, they feel strong enough to break the stranglehold pimps and policemen have on their lives. DMSC helps women save money, organizes loan programs, and trains their children in professions like electricians and beauticians. On one afternoon, a dozen members and their children practiced a dance number for a cultural program in a sunny courtyard ringed with potted dahlias.

"Before we were alone and didn't have the courage to say anything when we were being exploited," says Rama Debnath, a sex worker who is also president of DMSC. "Now if the cops pick up one woman, 10 women will go to the police station and demand to know why."

Some social workers complain that the women of DMSC are promoting sex workers' rights and legalized prostitution under the guise of HIV prevention. Indeed, Dutta maintains the two are connected. When cops raid Sonagachi and fewer customers show up, desperate women accustomed to turning three tricks a day are less likely to demur when the madam says "Set the babu down properly," a euphemism for unprotected sex.

Not all advocates believe in calling prostitution "work."

"I don't feel like we can call this 'work' in a South Asian context," says Indrani Sinha, whose non-government organization Sanlaap also works with sex workers and their children. Sinha says beyond prostitutes the sex trade here involves a criminal nexus of cops, neighborhood hoodlums, traffickers and crooked politicians. "There is so much exploitation here that by calling it work we just empower the pimps, madams and traffickers." She says police have told her that even if prostitution gets legalized, they will still raid red light areas looking for criminals and minors.

DMSC is trying to forestall police raids by establishing its own board to, for instance, track new women to make sure they are not minors who have been coerced into prostitution.

"We need to start making distinctions between trafficking (forced or coerced labor) and consensual sex work," says Shohini Ghosh, an academic and director of a documentary on sex workers, "Tales of the Night Fairies." One woman, Rama Debnath says she went into "the line" after marriage because it paid better than working in houses.

But Sinha says consent isn't a meaningful word "when we are talking about desperately poor women with no options." She recalls a 12-year-old girl who ran away with a client and returned two years later with a baby. "Where is the choice in that?" Sinha asks.

Whether prostitution finally gets recognized as "work" or not, attitudes are shifting here. Now sex workers regularly appear on television programs as guests and meet with government ministers. "I don't even want to be called a sex worker. I just want to be called a worker," Debnath says.

Sandip Roy is host of "Upfront" -- the Pacific News Service weekly radio program on KALW-FM, San Francisco.