Banking on the Sex Trade

Kolkata-based Aditi Biswas, 29, was keen to turn entrepreneur and run her own grocery. There was one problem. Aditi was working as a prostitute and the neighborhood banks she approached for loans turned her down flat.

Enter the Usha Multipurpose Cooperative Society, a bank that caters exclusively to the financial needs of Kolkata’s sex workers. The society offered Aditi seed capital of Rs100,000 ($2500) for her business, with minimal fuss and nominal interest. Away from the sleaze of her previous profession, Aditi is now an entrepreneur who not only sends her children to a good school but also just bought a one-bedroom house. “The bank has turned my life around 180 degrees,” she exults.

Spurned by the traditional banking system, scores of prostitutes in Kolkata have had their lives dramatically altered by the society. “Our bank aims to empower sex workers by offering them economic security," Samarjit Jana, a board member and sex worker, told Asia Sentinel. “The idea is to create an enabling environment for sex workers so that they can leave the profession if they so desire.”

Usha, which means sunrise or beginning, was started by 12 Indian prostitutes in 1995 and is run under the aegis of the Durbar Mahila Samiti, a Kolkata-based sex workers' collective. Operating out of Sonagachi, one of Kolkata’s teeming brothel districts, Usha has grown from that handful of members to more than 10,000 today.

Bank employees, mostly the children of local prostitutes, recall how initially they had to push sex workers to open accounts. But the momentum picked up as soon as the women were convinced that Usha was there to help. Nonjudgmental, it offers dramatic evidence that the sex trade is an economic necessity for many women, rather than a profession of fallen souls.

"We want to increase our membership to 20,000 over the next year," Rekha Chatterjee, Usha’s President, and a sex worker, told the BBC recently. "We've managed to convince people that we're here to stay. Now, we have to bank on the trust that people have shown in us."

Because Usha is geared towards sex workers, it doesn’t function like a normal bank. All 12 board members are sex workers, and the annual membership fee is just Rs25 (US63¢). The sex workers must deposit a minimum of Rs10 per day to maintain their membership. Each transaction is computerized, while 40-odd collectors go from house to house to gather the daily fees from prostitutes who can’t make it to the bank. The bank issues loans for children’s education, medical treatment, real estate houses and setting up businesses. The highest loan so far – Rs1.6 million – went to a sex worker who wanted to open a garment factory two years ago.

Since a majority of the account holders are illiterate, the bank staff patiently explains procedures to them. If that fails, they try audio-visual presentations. Occasionally, bank clerks may even go to the prostitutes’ homes to demonstrate how to use a bank account. Those who cannot sign their names are allowed to open accounts with a thumbprint.

From one office, Usha has now branched out into a dozen, catering to the needs of most of West Bengal’s red light districts, including those in far-flung Durgapur and Asansol.

Another strong driving force, say society members, is the need to promote an environment where the working women can enforce condom usage on their clients. That is only possible for workers who are financially secure and in a position to negotiate terms with their customers. This strategy, called “community-led structural intervention”, meant that the targeted community had to first build its own resources, one such mechanism being Usha. India hosts over 3 million AIDS-infected people, with the virus mostly transmitted through unprotected sex.

Usha’s working capital has grown to over Rs200 million, and there are plans to invest in a petrol station, a medicine shop and a polyclinic. The bank already runs a popular grocery, cosmetics shop and beauty parlor. It has also expanded its areas of activities to include savings and micro credit schemes, childcare centers, handicraft production, and the supply and marketing of condoms. The society will soon venture into auto loans and release funds to the corporate sector.

Before Usha, sex workers had few options and were at the mercy of local moneylenders who not only extracted phenomenal interest but often sought sexual favors. Harassment from local goons and the police made life miserable. “My life was miserable when I started out in this profession in the 1980s,” said Seeta, 36, a society member. “Moneylenders would snatch away every penny of my income. But once I started saving with the society, I’ve been able to better my life by buying modern gadgets like a fridge and TV. I’m now saving for a house.”

Although sex workers earn in cash, they have little control over their assets. Most of their income is used to pay off power brokers within the industry, bribe local cops and provide sustenance to their families. This makes them vulnerable to extortion by moneylenders. Perpetually in debt, it is not uncommon for prostitutes to pay annual interest rates as high as 1500 percent.

What makes the scenario worse is legal ambivalence. Though prostitution is technically illegal in India, it is a thriving underground industry for about 2 million women, most of them trafficked or forced into the work by crippling poverty. With most of their lives spent repaying the investment of the brothel owners, sex workers often find it almost impossible to break free. They have few rights and are often abused by both customers and police.

Local observers estimate that the number of Indian sex workers is growing by almost 10 per cent annually, with over 600,000 minors also employed in the flesh trade. Though women's rights groups have been demanding legislation to grant sex workers rights, it is yet to come through. On the contrary, the government lately has begun considering amendments to the existing Immoral Trafficking Prevention (ITP) Act that imposes a six-month jail term and a sizeable fine on clients visiting brothels. This legislation would likely further worsen the lives of Indian prostitutes.

In such a bleak scenario, voluntary efforts like Usha are crucial. However, as much as the material benefits, the society also gives its members a measure of social confidence. After decades of ostracism and isolation, some of Kolkata’s sex workers are finally leading fuller lives. Ganga, for instance, has been squirreling away a US$1 a day in the society’s coffers for a house, savings that were earlier snatched away by drunken pimps and local goons. “I'm getting old,” she said, “but I can still save to build a house in our village."

Another woman, Rani, said she needed Usha to help care for her aging and ill parents. She was thrilled that she did not need to beg or borrow from moneylenders recently when her mother needed open-heart surgery. She got a medical loan from Usha and had her mother operated on at a leading local hospital.

“My mother’s smile makes all the effort seem worth it,” Rani said.