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Hope comes to Sonagachi

Sujoy Dhar

The success stories scripted by the gritty women of Sonagachi to keep AIDS at bay have turned this infamous `pleasure' zone of Kolkata into a role model for the rest of India and perhaps the subcontinent.


Melinda Gates with the sex workers of Sonagachi.

It was sundown and Sonagachi, the famous `pleasure' district of Kolkata, was just about waking up for yet another night. The girls, heavily made up, were lined up for their customers who poured in a steady stream. But, their strong perfume and garish make-up was only a mask to hide their agony and strife.

In a bamboo-walled, 300-odd-sq-ft room of this everyday sex bazaar, young Chanda (name changed) sat in silence. A power cut silhouetted her rather coy face. Shorn of makeup and the usual trappings of a sex worker, she looked like the spruced-up maid who does the domestic chores in our houses. It was hard to believe that she would soon be soliciting customers. At a distance was seated a middle-aged bespectacled man in a red shirt. They were both waiting for the doctor to arrive for the regular check-up at this HIV/STD Intervention Programme clinic. It was equally hard to believe that this archetypal educated middle-class looking man was a regular visitor to this red light district of 9,000 prostitutes, comprising 6,000 brothel-based women and 3,000 "flying" who go back home after the trade.

Chanda had some gynaecological problem and she was visiting the clinic for consultation. The client in red shirt too had some problem. Apart from the bed in the seedy rundown quarters of Chanda and others in her trade, this clinic too is a melting pot for the buyers and sellers of sex in Sonagachi. And it is the success stories scripted by such clinics and the gritty women of Sonagachi that turn this infamous zone of Kolkata into a role model for the rest of India and perhaps the subcontinent. It is this unusual success that also attracted Melinda Gates, wife of one of the world's richest men and the Microsoft Chairman, Bill Gates, here early this year.

January 25, 2004, was a special day for the marginalised sex workers of Sonagachi. Women in surgical green coats lined this old dingy alley that houses the office of Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC), the 6,000 strong sex workers' body in West Bengal. The street where the office is located was buzzing with activity and excitement. It was not a day of mega bucks promises from the Microsoft first lady. It was actually a day of pride for the members of Durbar as Sonagachi's HIV/AIDS prevention project had been selected as the role model for a $200-million programme of the Gates Foundation in six Indian States not including West Bengal.

"This is the most we have committed to any country. I am impressed by what I saw here. This is a model project on how to get the message across, especially in India. This is how it should work," said Melinda Gates as she toured the area, saw the work in progress and was greeted with the lusty chanting of We Shall Overcome and flower petal showers.

The trailblazers of Sonagachi project would now show the way to their counterparts in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Nagaland.

But behind the Sonagachi revolution lies a long story of grit, determination and experimentation. The grit of thousands of faceless women caught in the vortex of the sex trade and the experimentation of a man behind those now-successful women. Today, when young Chanda affirms that she does not accept, for any price, a client insisting on condom-less sex, she actually mouths a slogan that started 12 years ago in Sonagachi and some other red light districts of Kolkata.

Recalls Swapna Gyen, sex worker and secretary of Durbar: "When we started the HIV/STD Intervention Programme in 1992 under the supervision of Dr Smarajit Jana of the All India Institute of Hygiene and Public Health (AIIHPH), the challenge was Herculean. We asked our women to insist on protective sex but we were helpless against the might of the local rowdies, the policemen and the madams. So we organised ourselves, fought the local mafia, the policemen and the madams and educated the girls as well as the clients on the practice of safe sex. We formed teams of peer educators who went from room to room to make the girls aware. From a group of 12, we now have 400 peer educators who work among the 60,000-odd sex workers throughout the State under Durbar. Now 90 per cent of the sex workers don't entertain clients without condoms," says Swapna. She adds, "No new girl or those under age can enter the profession without passing through the self-regulatory board in various districts. These measures have also curbed child prostitution."

Says Rama Debnath, sex worker and president of the Durbar, "While earlier we distributed free condoms, now we sell them at subsidised rates and we've noticed an increase in condom sales. This is a clear indication that the project is a success."

"Why are we such a success and why are we a role model? It is because here in Sonagachi the decision-making is done by the sex workers and not by people outside our community. We may have some non-sex workers but we need them since we are not properly educated," says Rama.

"Sex workers from here will now train their counterparts in other States where this huge fund will go," says Dr Jana of AIIHPH, who is now the assistant country director of Care India and a member of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

"The girls undergo blood tests every three months. They now come on their own to our clinics," says field supervisor Sandhya Roy at the clinic where Chanda was waiting for the doctor to arrive.

"Our clinics are visited more by the clients than by the sex workers themselves. If there are 200 clients visiting the clinic in a week, then the number of girls is 100. There are follow-up checks every seven days. And if we find that a disease is a recurring feature in any girl or client, we send her or him to the city counselling centre we have formed to detect AIDS," says Sandhya.

"The common ailments among the clients here are genital ulcer, especially syphilitic ulcer. There are cases of urethral discharge too," says Dr Nilotpal Kulavi of the STD/HIV Intervention Programme (SHIP) in Sonagachi.

"The common disease among the sex workers is PID or Pelvic Inflammatory Diseases such as cervical discharge and deep dyspareunia. Though many of them here may not have AIDS, they are HIV positive," says Dr Kulavi, who feels that to control the spread of HIV those carrying the virus should be isolated.

But 12 years after their awakening and the fight to stave off AIDS, what still tops the agenda of the sex workers is the need to bolster their demands for legalisation of prostitution and sex workers' rights as enunciated clearly in the November 1997 National Conference of Sex Workers organised by Durbar.

"We are fighting for workers' rights and submitted our demands to the authorities and the labour commissioner," says Bharati Dey, secretary of sex workers' Binodini Sramik Union.

But workers' rights or not, the women of Sonagachi have proved themselves a gutsy lot who overcame social ostracism and poverty to shine as trailblazers of a positive revolution.

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