Bank frees India’s sex workers from madams’ clutches
Amrit Dhillon in Kolkata
Kolkata: As a sex worker in Kolkata, Rita Roy had no access to her own money. The brothel madam kept her earnings “safe” – shoving the notes into her bra – and whenever Roy needed money, she would never get the full amount she asked for.
Roy, 36, did not have a bank account. When she needed money to treat her father’s heart condition seven years ago, she was forced to visit a loan shark to borrow 2,000 rupees (£23). In one year, 13,000 rupees extra (£150) was due from the interest.
“When I couldn’t repay it, the money lender posted two men outside the kotha [brothel] to harass me every time I went out to shop,” says Roy. But now she has a bank account with the Usha Multipurpose Cooperative Society, which is run by and for sex workers. It began with 13 women pooling their savings – 30,000 rupees – in 1995. Today, the bank’s turnover is 300m rupees a year and it has a membership of 31,000 sex workers from across West Bengal.
Sex workers are surrounded by ill-wishers – madams, pimps, “boyfriends” and often relatives trying to relieve them of their money.
Usha bank provides a safe place for the women to deposit money. Interest rates encourage them to save, and access to loans liberates them from money lenders’ rates of up to 300% annually.
But the bank’s blue passbook also gave Roy dignity, a sense of being part of society, a feeling of equality with other Indians, and the power to make her own decisions.
Even more important, it enabled her to get an official ID, as the book states her name and address – a prerequisite for renting accommodation, receiving welfare benefits and registering to vote.
Roy now works as an assistant secretary at the bank, which was set up under the auspices of the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, an NGO that supports sex workers.
The women who come to the bank have needs similar to Roy. She has taken out three loans: for her father’s medical treatment, to buy a small plot in her village, and to send her nephew to college.
In his office next door to Roy’s, Smarajit Jana, a chief adviser, says he has “too many stories to tell” about how the bank has changed lives. “[The women] have bought land and built homes, educated their children, sent money back to support aged parents, opened a small business,” he says. “The bank gave them a security they had never known before.”
Jana used to work on HIV prevention in the early 1990s, and realised that handing out condoms was not enough. “They needed control over their lives. They are at the mercy of the madams, who take 50% of their earnings. What’s left is at the mercy of goons and policemen, who extort money. They needed control over their finances,” he says.
Such is Usha’s success that this month it will begin offering banking and credit facilities to domestic helpers and construction workers.
Subhash Shaw, the child of a sex worker, collects deposits and loan repayments for Usha. His education was thanks to his mother’s savings at Usha. “Very few of them default on loans. They are very responsible,” he says.
In the litter-strewn alleys that lead to the brothels in the sex-worker district of Sonagachi, food sellers heat up huge cauldrons of oil to fry snacks. Tea is boiled in gigantic saucepans.
Up a narrow flight of stairs, in a decrepit building, Manju Dutt sits inside a tiny cubicle that serves as her living room. A young woman is asleep on the concrete floor.
Dutt is older than 50 and has spent almost her entire life in Sonagachi. She takes out her passbook from under her mattress. It shows the repayments for loans: for her daughter’s wedding, for gallstone surgery, and for her granddaughter’s wedding.
“I trust Usha because sex workers run it – they take all the decisions. When I am unwell, Subhash comes to collect my deposit or to get my signature if I need to withdraw money,” she says.
Outside, in the corridor, grey-haired Renu Singh is now a madam. Her granddaughters, Nisha and Nikita, come running to hug her when they see her being photographed. Singh has educated and married off all four of her children.
“I didn’t take any loans. I saved the money,” she says. “For years, I wasted my earnings, spending it all. Then, with Usha, I got into the habit of saving.”
Many of the women had been abandoned by their husbands, forcing them into sex work to support themselves, their children and siblings. Rita Das, who has come to deposit 500 rupees, raised two children on her own after her husband ran off with another woman.
Anu Maiti was married at 16 and widowed at 17. Now 35, she rents her own room for clients. She has come to the bank to make a deposit. “Without my bank passbook as proof of my ID, no landlord would have given me a room. I have no children, so I must be able to support myself later in life. I try to save a bit every day,” she says.
Roy is looking to the future. “That tiny plot I bought with a loan from Usha? I’m going to take out another loan and build two rooms. If I succeed, Usha bank will save me from destitution in my old age,” says Roy.