A Case For Financial Inclusion of Sex Workers


Let’s take a tour through the immoral red light areas of your city. As we traverse through the bylanes of the dark streets lined with unabashed women, ‘selling their dignity’ for cash per hour, escaping the clutches of the police and entertaining men, blind your biases and numb your mind. If you can, wear on an oblivious brain and an open heart, for what you are aware of may crumble under the weight of reality.

The woman in the first room provides sex services on the same bed under which her infant child sleeps. She never went to school and was married off early in her life. Her abusive husband abandoned her and their son. She was determined to ensure that his son didn’t have to lead the life of an ignorant destitute that she was, all her life. Without an education or any formal training in any skill of any kind, she turned to sex work.

She works through the night, pays the brothel owners, feeds her child and saves money by stitching the wad of notes into one of her spare clothes, and hiding it under a lump of her belongings. She hopes that with whatever little she saves each day, she’ll be able to afford books for her child when he grows up.

There are nights when she is tired and doesn’t want to work. This is not an option. There are mornings when she wakes up with stomach-wrenching pain and then there are mornings when she wishes she didn’t have to wake up at all. She loves to paint and her eyes gleam at every piece of art on the streets. She breaks down but always musters the courage to work relentlessly in the hope of a better future for her and her child. Is her courage an embarrassment or an inspiration? Are her aspirations or rather, is her work unabashed and morally demeaning or is our worldview so narrow, we never recognized that several women like her need strong institutional support?

Although precise estimates of the number of sex workers in India is not available, Sonagachi in Kolkata is deemed to be Asia’s largest red light area, which explains the magnitude of women in who work as sex workers in India. Not all out of choice- some out of destitution, some out of lack of other employment opportunities and some because they were sold or trafficked into prostitution.

Criminalizing an activity doesn’t end it – it merely pushes it underground which then becomes the breeding ground for exploitation. To put an end to anything, the system has to understand it from the perspective of people involved in it and create sustainable alternatives for them. This is what the sex industry and the women working in it need the most – opportunities to pursue alternative career options and lead an exploitation-free, healthy life even if they continue to work as sex workers. One way to achieve this goal is through the financial inclusion of prostitutes.

Before we delve into exploring the need for financial inclusion for sex workers, let’s delve into why regular commercial banks don’t provide financial services to sex workers.

Salman Ansari / DNA

Mainstream financial institutions such as public and private banks are inaccessible to prostitutes for a variety of reasons. Maya Lama, an activist working with sex workers in Kamathipura, Mumbai says, “Most of these women were sold into sexual slavery by their relatives or pimps. They do not have birth certificates, school leaving certificates or proof of residence – documents that are required to open bank accounts in India. Worse, regular banks have asked us to keep sex workers away since other customers protest against banking with them.”

Moreover, the stigma associated with sex work implies that it can be difficult for sex workers to approach officials in regular banks, who may be insensitive or even discriminate against them. The shame and embarrassment attached to this profession may deter sex workers from even thinking of approaching mainstream banks. Further, the financial needs of sex workers may be very different from those of customers which these banks usually serve. Sex workers have small amounts of savings on a daily basis and the frequency of their withdrawals may also be higher. These characteristics, in turn, imply that banks may not be able to yield enough profits from sex workers’ accounts, which again is a disincentive for them to provide banking services to this community.

No access to financial services, banks implies that sex workers have to be in charge of storing the money safely with themselves, which is often difficult because often they don’t have a house of their own– they live either in the brothels or in the slums, places in which it is rarely ever safe to leave money. This also makes them more vulnerable to abuse. Uzma, a sex worker in Mumbai’s Kamathipura says, “Money needs to be hidden. In the past, clients have beaten me up after they learned I was hoarding cash, took the money and fled. Even my boyfriend tends to get violent and takes off with the money.” Further, with lack of interest-bearing savings, sex workers are unable to amass any wealth at all and have to survive from day to day on their minimal earnings. This severely affects the quality of life that their children lead and the educational opportunities available to them. The consequence of this is that children of sex workers are unable to develop their earning potential and may have to lead poverty-stricken lives. With no amassed wealth, no financial institution to seek a loan from, these women are compelled to depend on sex work for daily survival – they don’t have the resources to feed their family while training to take up another job. In the absence of formal financial services, they may have to also turn to informal sources of finance such as moneylenders and loan sharks, which again makes them vulnerable to exploitation. Rita Roy, a sex worker in Bengal had to borrow an amount of Rs.2000 from a loan shark to support the treatment of her father’s medical condition. A year later, the interest amount totalled to a whopping Rs. 13000.  Her desperate need for money and lack of sources for the same, allowed the loan shark to financially exploit her by charging unbelievably high-interest rates. Further, she says, “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.”

Thus, it becomes nearly impossible to break the cycle of poverty and abuse.

There are thousands of women in India working as sex workers in neglected corners of cities. Without access to financial services, they may have to continue to suffer abuse. Financial inclusion is the key to empowering them.

Financial inclusion refers to providing access to formal financial services to every individual, across socio-economic backgrounds and income strata. This term is used especially in reference to providing financial services to the marginalised, poor and rural communities because these are the very communities that are not served by mainstream regular banks as their financial needs are often micro in nature compared to the those of relatively well-off customers that such banks serve and hence, need special institutions such as microfinance institutions to cater to their financial needs.

An exemplary effort towards financial inclusion of sex workers is the Usha Multipurpose Cooperative Bank in Kolkata. It is an institution run by the sex workers and for the sex workers. The importance of such a financial institution can be understood by the fact that the bank which began with merely 13 women pooling their savings, today deals with Rs. 30 crores each year, with a membership of 31,000 sex workers from across West Bengal. Such an initiative not only provides a safe place for the sex workers to deposit their savings and earn interest but also protects them from informal sources of finance and their gargantuan interest rates. Further, having a bank account, a passbook allows sex workers to become a part of the mainstream population — they can procure official identity documents because the passbook has their name and address. Official identity documents, allow them to rent a house, to vote and to be a beneficiary of government welfare schemes. It instills in them a sense of dignity, improves the quality of their life and empowers them to provide a better life for their children. It’s a very basic yet significant step in helping them to break the cycle of poverty and abuse.

Sangini cooperative bank, a bank by and for sex workers in Kamathipura, Mumbai was set up following the example set by Usha Bank. The far-reaching impact of the Sangini Bank is highlighted by Ms Shilpa Merchant, the former national coordinator of the U.S.-based non-profit Population Services International (PSI) that initially funded the project, “Some sex workers could get their children married, some left the profession and started a shop. We documented all this. The bank was giving them alternative options of livelihood.” Further, Maya Lama, a board member of the Sangini Bank emphasizes, “This bank brought us together. Our collection agents had access to brothels. We were able to rescue many young girls from brothels in the last few years.” However, this bank shut down in 2017 due to a funding crunch, leaving sex workers in Kamathipura (Asia’s second-largest red light area) with no place to hide their funds and vulnerable to exploitation.

These examples highlight three important aspects. Firstly, the success of the Usha Bank and the Sangini Bank highlight the need for empathy and respect for sex workers in our society. Sex workers eagerly accessed the banking facilities provided by these banks because their problems were understood and they were comfortable banking with fellow sex workers. This safe and comfortable environment may not exist for sex workers in regular commercial banks. Secondly, the fact that these banks are set-up especially for sex workers allows them to develop a structure that can cater to the specific financial needs of sex workers. For instance, the Sangini Bank accepted deposits of amounts as low as Rs. 5 and never demanded any paperwork or identity documents apart from a photograph. Such a structure may not be feasible for regular banks. Thirdly, these banks not only solved the sex workers’ financial needs but in the process allowed them to pursue alternative jobs, rent houses, access formal identity documents. A network of agents was formed with the bank. These agents, usually sex workers themselves, volunteered to visit brothels where they would collect women’s savings and issue receipts on behalf of the bank. The proximity of these collection agents to sex workers and their greater access to brothels, helped them to even rescue women and girls who were forced into prostitution — a task which would be more challenging for external parties such as the police or non-profit organizations. They are safety nets, escape routes and a channel for venting grievances for the sex workers.

However, it is also important to emphasize the major challenges of running such a bank- profitability, sustainability and stigma. Narayan Hegde, a trustee of the Sangini Bank explains why the bank had to eventually shut down: “We gave 3% interest to account holders on their deposits. We, in turn, deposited all the money into another nationalized bank that gave us 5% interest. To run the bank on 2% margin was becoming unsustainable. We had a liability of Rs. 4 million when we closed. We had no support. The minute we said sex workers, nobody was interested (in funding the bank)”. Profitability is quintessential to sustain any financial institution and innovation in this sector is now required to make banks such as Sangini co-operative profitable yet flexible enough to cater to the niche banking needs of sex workers.

The stigma surrounding sex work needs to be dismantled to empower sex workers and to put an end to their abuse.

Sara Sethia is a Research Associate (Gender Justice) at One Future Collective.

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It’s my power to nurture, pouring love

Into the beauty I held inside me.

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The Legality of Sex Work in India


Scintillating glass bangles and curvy traces, red pouts and hair adorned with jasmine; lascivious manoeuvres of hemlines too short: illegal by night, ostracised by day. This is a plausible melange of the imagery that term sex worker arouses. Gratifying the hushed desire of millions, a ‘vice’ that is most pronounced in the night and silenced out of existence in the day. An outcast community, with needs and desires as mainstream as us, these sex workers, live outside of  the law.

Sex work in India is governed by the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956. Although sex work is not illegal according to the Act, supporting activities such as maintenance of brothels or soliciting customers are punishable offences.

Brothels are defined by the Act to include “any house, room, conveyance or place, or any portion of any house, room, conveyance or place which is used for the purposes of sexual exploitation or abuse for the gain of another person or for the mutual gain for two or more prostitutes.” The Act criminalises any sex work within a 200m radius of any public place, including hotels. Moreover, the Act also penalises any entity who owns or knowingly supports prostitution in his/her premises and also prosecutes any adult over eighteen years of age, who lives on the earnings of a prostitute.

Before we delve into critiquing the vices and virtues of this Act, it is important to understand the nature of the controversial sex industry, trace its roots and illuminate the reasons why people choose to be or end-up being sex workers.

Surprisingly, prostitution is often deemed to be the oldest profession and can be traced back to the ancient Babylons. Ancient Indian literature is also replete with references to prostitution, a prominent example of which is Chanakya’s ‘Arthashastra’ where he clearly and meticulously writes about prostitution and its code of practice. This clearly suggests that prostitution has its roots in ancient India and is not a manifestation of decadence, as is sometimes claimed. Further, it is important to emphasise that the fact that this practice found a place in sacrosanct literature, including the Vedas and the Arthashastra, implies that prostitution was not an underground practice. Rather, it was a well-acknowledged, mainstream activity. This should raise some eyebrows the next time ‘culture’ is put forth as a reason to look down upon sex workers.

Although current estimates about the number of prostitutes is not available, a 2007 report submitted to the Ministry of Women and Child Development, reported that there are 3 million sex workers in India with 35.4% of them being less than 18 years old. Often, millions of sex workers are coerced into prostitution and continue to be victims of human trafficking and forced sex. However, there are millions of other women who turn to sex work to escape abject poverty. The law thus has to be designed to protect both the victims of sex slavery as well as people who voluntarily choose to take up prostitution as their profession.

Before we begin to develop opinions about people who willingly work as prostitutes, it is important to remember Atticus Finch’s advice: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view until you climb into his skin and walk around”.

The ability to discern and choose between morality and immorality is a prerogative of privilege. How would you respond to this question raised by a sex worker, “So what if I have to sell my body to make money? I want my daughter to have a better life. Is that too much to ask for?”

The fact that we, the constituents of the mainstream society, had an opportunity to attend school, to pursue our interests and take up professions we were passionate about, is a privilege that not everybody has access to. The fact that our families had enough financial resources to protect and promote our physical and intellectual well-being is a privilege that not everybody has access to. Given a choice between being destitute on the streets and lulling hungry children to sleep every night or working as a sex worker and expanding the opportunities for their children, these women choose the latter. Would you still look down upon them as immoral? Put in the situation that they are in, would you be able to care about philosophical concepts of morality?

Punit Paranjpe/Reuters

On the other end of the spectrum, there are women and girls who were duped into sex work — victims of sex trafficking who continue to face sexual exploitation every day. According to statistics published by the Government of India, almost 20,000 women and children were victims of sex trafficking in India in 2016. However, as a Delhi police official pointed out, the actual figure could be much higher as many victims were still not registering cases with the police, largely because they did not know the law or feared traffickers. Sex trafficking is partly a manifestation of misogyny and partly a manifestation of socio-economic vulnerabilities of the disadvantaged sections of the Indian society, who are tricked into prostitution under the masquerade of promises of a good job or better life.

10-year-old Gita was sold into prostitution by her aunt. Now, 22-year-old Gita recalls how she was pinned to the ground by other sex workers, her mouth stuffed with a cloth so that no one could hear screams as the customer raped her. She contracted HIV.

In this light, we can now understand why the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act is not comprehensive enough to regulate the Indian sex industry, prevent trafficking and supporting sex workers and victims.

The fact that the Act criminalises brothels, which includes two or more women working together as prostitutes, implies that if women want to work as sex workers legally, they should do so alone. Further, the compulsion that sex work shouldn’t be within a 200m radius of any public place again implies that to engage in prostitution legally, an isolated location should be chosen. These aspects of the Act make sex workers more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. Moreover, sex workers who are often exploited by pimps or brothel owners can’t take the resort of the legal system because, under the law, they will be prosecuted for working in a brothel and hence, they silently continue to suffer at the hands of brothel owners. Section 8 of the Act notably criminalises the act of seduing or soliciting customers. Though the Act may not prohibit prostitution, it certainly makes it very difficult for sex workers to legitimately exercise their right to work.

Criminalising brothels, soliciting and the practice of prostitution in proximity to public places in an attempt to curtail prostitution has clearly failed, which is patently evident from the fact that metropolitan cities like Mumbai and Kolkata boast red light areas of  Kamathipura and Sonagachi respectively, which rank as some of the largest red light areas in Asia. The Act has  made sex workers more vulnerable by forcing them to work in the darker, more invisible corners of the cities, silently suffering exploitation. This seclusion of sex workers also implies that they are left in oblivion about access to information about and treatments for sexually transmitted diseases, which they are most at risk of contracting. Further, it also means that they can’t access public facilities like public hospitals, colleges and schools, the access to which are quintessential for them to expand their opportunities and improve the quality of their lives.

Mainstreaming sex work, easing access to birth control methods and medical aid together with educational opportunities will not only enable sex workers to live a more normal life but will also work to a great extent to prevent their exploitation because they will no longer be vulnerable to their perpetrators.

The Act does not do a great job with prevention of sex trafficking, either. The Act mandates that victims rescued from the sex trade remain within a ‘protective home’ until the court orders their release. These protective homes are more like a prison, with the one in Mumbai having three barred gates before the women’s living quarters. ‘The women usually stand behind these doors, asking staff or visitors like myself, police personnel or NGO representatives when they would be released,” writes Ms Vibhuti Ramachandran, whose research is focused at the intersection of law and sex trade in India, in her article: Rescued But Not Released. These women are held in protective homes until the magistrate decides the suitability of their guardians. Often, the legal formalities mean that these women end up being forced to remain in protective homes beyond the 3 week period allocated for court procedures. This is applicable for women who are older than 18 years and their consent or opinion doesn’t find a formal place in the entire process. After a harrowing experience, a broken mind and body, victims of sex trafficking need emotional, mental and physical care to allow them to heal and grow. Although intended to ensure the safety of these women, this aspect of the Act almost makes them crave for relief and rescue all over again — initially from the clutches of their exploiters and now from ‘protective homes’. The entire process of rescuing victims of sex trafficking and transitioning them into the mainstream society requires a more empathetic perspective for women, with due respect to free consent and the choice of these human beings.

Thus, if the intention of the legislation is to protect sex workers and victims of sex trafficking and provide them with opportunities for growth, it is indispensable to understand their problem from their perspective and make them a part of the decision-making process instead of ignoring their voice and consent. It is important to understand the nuanced differences between the motivations of why some people voluntarily choose to do sex work and address their interests and at the same time is important to punish sex traffickers and rehabilitate women who were forced into sex work. A more inclusive legislation — legislation for sex workers and trafficked women and not for the upholding ideals of socially construed morality is the need of the hour and this is only possible, when we lend an ear to their voices.

Miranda Kane, a former sex-worker says: “I would like to gently suggest to you, when a sex worker talks, you listen. If you want to make laws that affect us, consult us. There should be nothing about us, without us.”

Sara Sethia is a Research Associate (Gender Justice) at One Future Collective.

Featured image: gaylaxymag.com

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