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Exclusive On International Sex Workers Day: This NGO Is Helping Kolkata's Sex Workers Amid COVID-19

Every year, 2 June marks the International Sex Workers' Day to honour the sex workers and how they work in exploitative conditions. While some of us have the liberty to complain about the nationwide COVID-19 lockdown from the comfort of our couch, this deserted and decayed portion of the society is struggling to feed themselves and their children because their daily income has been affected. Probably this is the only section of the society which always faces health risks and yet most of us are busy either stigmatising them or pitying them.

Boldsky got in touch with Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, a non-governmental organisation (NGO), to get a glimpse into the life of these women. Durbar works towards creating awareness and for the welfare of the sex workers of Kolkata's 'Sonagachi', which tranlates into English as 'Golden Tree' and is the largest red-light district in Asia, drawing about 35,000 footfalls every day.

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Dr S Jana, Principal, Sonagachi Research and Training Institute, and Founder and Chief Advisor of Durbar, shared his thoughts in an exclusive interview with Boldsky. On asking about the inception of Durbar, and how the COVID-19 crisis is affecting the sex workers, Dr Jana said, "We are trying our best to spread more and more awareness about COVID-19 to sex workers living in the brothels. Though West Bengal, unlike any other Indian state is quite affected due to Coronavirus, it makes me quite happy to say, till date, no sex worker has caught the infection."

COVID-19 And Sex Workers

The real threat of contracting COVID-19 is less during the nationwide lockdown and will be more when it will be lifted, as the customers will start visiting the brothels. "The sex workers do listen to the health tips and suggestions given by the Durbar team," said Dr. Jana.

"They are quite attentive and cooperative. They know that we are working for their welfare and therefore, they take precautions against COVID-19 infections. Even though their daily wages are getting affected, they are not entertaining any clients during this lockdown to keep themselves safe. We are providing them with food and other essential things to ensure they do not face much problem in this tough situation," he added.

Apart from creating awareness about COVID-19, this NGO aids the treatment of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), as also common ailments, chronic illnesses and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). The NGO also provides free medication to HIV positive with the help of the government and other NGOs that run HIV campaigns.

"As a citizen of our country, I wanted to work for the betterment of these people. Society has stigmatised them and often looks down upon them. There are many sex workers who are trying their best to support their families and therefore they are into this profession. There are many sex workers who are the sole earners in their families. We are human beings, and therefore, we should come forward to lend our support to these poor and marginalised sections of society," said Dr. Jana.

"Currently, during this pandemic, these women are spending time with their children. They are playing with them and giving them important life lessons like any other mother. So this lockdown is allowing them to be with their children and utilise their entire time in either engaging themselves in some productive work with their kids or have some time to rest," said Dr. Jana.

Children Who Are Born Into Brothels

Apart from medications and medical facilities, Durbar also aims at taking proper care of the children of sex workers. They provide them clothing, nutritious food and also an educational facility for the children.

Dr Jana feels that like every other child, these kids, too, have an equal right to education and lead a better life. "Therefore, we have hostel facilities for them and we try our best not only to educate them but also to train them in sports, arts and other extracurricular activities. I believe that these are the basic rights of every child irrespective of their parents' identity and profession."

Upon being asked whether these children know that their mothers are into prostitution, Dr. Jana revealed, "Yes, they are very much aware of this and they are not ashamed to admit it. In fact, they are as proud of their mothers as any other child in this world. They support their mothers and understand that they are doing this to earn a livelihood."

"These children are as talented and hardworking. They love going to school and they want to make their mothers proud," said Dr. Jana.

Though it sounds really impressive that the children of sex workers are able to receive an education, it was not that easy for them. There had been times when these children had to face discrimination from the people.

"Initially, we faced many problems in providing educational facilities. Some also feel that these children have a loose character, as their mothers are into prostitution. However, over the course of time, things have changed to some extent (as to how people think)," added Dr. Jana.

Thanks to Durbar, today many of these children have graduated and are well settled. Some of them are working in Durbar itself on different designations.

Challenges Faced By Dr. Jana And His Team

"Since we are working for those who are neglected in society, we have faced many challenges such as goons and exploitative police officers. Apart from these, the mentality and behaviour of people towards these sex workers were also one of the biggest challenges. However, we started the Durbar initiative under the All India Institute of Hygiene and Public Health. Initially, the owners of brothels were quite sceptical towards us but over the years, they cooperated. At times we also contacted the police commissioner," revealed Dr. Jana.

Whenever there's a new entrant into these brothels, Dr. Jana and his team visit the place and try to find out if the girl or woman was brought in forcefully or consensually. If any of them has been brought in forcefully, the NGO takes the necessary steps to not only rescue the girl but also help her get back home. They also help those who want to quit this profession and start a new life. Many of them wish to go back to their family and restart their lives.

"We have rescued many girls and women who didn't want to be in this profession or were brought forcefully. In the past three years, we have rescued more than 1,100 girls and women who were either forced into this profession or were unwilling to continue with this profession. We help them find a livelihood and lead their life in a better way. Many of the old sex workers, who are not considered to be good enough for the business, either choose to work in the brothels as a cook, assistants of brothel owners or as a tutor to sex workers' children," said Dr. Jana.

Those who have some savings either build their own house to live peacefully or try to have some other source of livelihood.

Some of the sex workers have started an initiative known as 'USHA Cooperative'. Through this initiative, sex workers come together to save money and help each other in earning a living after they are no more into prostitution. In Dr. Jana's words, "There are many sex workers who are living with their families and are still cooperating with USHA."

Dr. Jana feels that this is just the beginning. "We want to decriminalise this profession for those who want to continue with this profession. We want the government to rescue all those who were forced into this profession. Also, we want the society to understand the plight and stop considering them as the scum of society. These women too are humans and therefore, they too have a right to live."

What Is the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee?

Durbar is an organisation that works for the welfare of sex workers irrespective of their sexual orientation and gender. It is currently serving 65,000 sex workers and their children as well. Under the guidance of Dr. Jana, the members of Durbar work towards providing healthcare facilities and other necessities to the sex workers.

It was in the year 1992 that Dr. S Jana participated in the HIV Intervention Programme, where he had taken the responsibility to teach Epidemiology in the All India Institute of Public Health. He was also assigned the duty of finding out the people who were HIV positive and to spread awareness about the transmission and prevention of HIV.

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