Thursday, May 22, 2014

Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee: Day One

Yesterday was our first visit to the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC) and to Sonagachi, which is the name of the "red light" district in North Kolkata. It's an area of about 8 (correct me if I'm wrong, classmates) city blocks that are filled with brothels. And the DMSC is the collaborative (sort of like a worker's union) that is run by and for the sex workers.

In the Western world (particularly in America, which is really all I can speak for), we have a lot of varying views on sex work. In the US we more commonly call it "prostitution", but sex work is a much better term that you all should start using! Sex work is real work. It is an exchange of services for a fee. Despite your personal beliefs about sex work, we should all be able to agree that sex workers have the same human rights as anyone with another profession, and they deserve the same quality of life. Some are trafficked into sex work. For some, sex work is an intergenerational profession that is passed from mother to daughter and on and on. Some choose sex work because they know it will bring in the most money for their family. No matter what brings a woman (or man, for that matter) to choose sex work, the individual and their choice must be respected

Please take a moment to read this, which is posted in all of Durbar's offices and buildings, before you go any further on this blog post.



We received an orientation from Dr. Jana, one of the doctors at the clinic at Durbar. I think it will help if I explain a bit of the back story about Durbar, as I understood it from yesterday's orientation, and borrowing some from the website:

In 1991 the Indian government began an HIV intervention in Sonagachi with the sole purpose of lowering HIV and other STI rates. After a few years, it became apparent that the sex workers themselves did not see HIV as their biggest problem - they had other issues such as harassment/violence from police and the community, their children being kicked out of schools for being children of sex workers, the women not being able to use a bank or get loans because of the stigma surrounding their work, and a general sense of stigma and disrespect that caused them to have a lower quality of life.

In 1995 the DMSC was formed. To take from the website:

"This is a forum exclusively set up and managed by sex workers and their children with the objective of creating solidarity and collective strength among the sex worker community and other marginalized groups.
Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee [...] took over the management of STD/HIV Intervention Programme [...] After taking the full control of the intervention programme, DMSC started replicating the basic principles and guiding policies of 'Sonagachi Project' in other red light areas in the city. The organisation took special initiative to reach an increasing number of sex workers. The basic approaches what Sonagachi adopted can be summed up as three 'R's': Respect, Reliance and Recognition. That is respect towards sex workers, reliance on them to run the programme and recognition of their professional and their agency. In practice the Project focused on translating this approach into a relationship of mutual trust and rapport between the community of sex workers and the staff members of the Project."


Now, nearly 20 years later, DMSC is a collective of over 60,000 members across the Indian state of West Bengal. They have their own bank, where they can take out loans and achieve credit. They advocate for themselves. The entire collective is run by the sex workers themselves. Dr. Jana told us yesterday that there were two solutions to the sex workers feeling as though they had no power. Number one was to reduce the power of the clients. But they have money, laws will not change overnight, etc. Number two was to empower the sex workers. Ding Ding! By the sex workers running the collective themselves, sitting on the board, and making decisions, it puts the power into their hands. The whole goal of DMSC is collectivization and empowerment.

There will have to be a part two to this, where I explain the programs that are offered by the DMSC and describe the rest of our day yesterday (which was 115 with the heat index, by the way!) For now, I must go shower and get ready for Orientation Day 2.

If you have any questions about sex work or are confused, please don't hesitate to leave a comment. :)

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