Asia’s biggest red-light district hopes a better future

Prostitution or sex trade is the oldest profession of the world which generates revenue of about $150 billion per year. It is an enormous profit making business but so far little has been done in terms of health and hygiene, safety and social recognition of the business in several countries. Sex workers are still an outcaste in most of the societies across the globe with authorities preferring to keep their eyes shut while being completely aware of the existence of this profit generating business and exploitation of the commercial sex workers. Exploitation of the sex workers is most in societies where they are banned and in societies where prostitutes are traditionally punishable by death mostly in some Islamic countries. The funny side is even in these countries sex rackets are operating smoothly and covertly in different forms and flourishing as a business with customer cutting across the barriers of age, profession, religion, caste, creed and social status flocking to them.

In India prostitution is legalised but not regulated.  Organised activities such as brothels are illegal.  Nevertheless, sex trade is still a taboo culture in the land of Kamasutra. Police, authorities often taking advantage of the situation exploit the sex workers.

As one enters the dark and dingy lanes of Sonagachi, Asia’s largest and most famous red-light district, one is ushered into a whole new world of contradictions. Dilapidated houses, provocatively dressed sex workers with loud make up, pimps, dirty lanes yet there exists “A” class sex workers who never come out of the famous building called “Neelkamal”. The Neelkamal building is fitted with all the possible modern amenities as opposed to the dark and dingy rooms of “B” and “C” class sex workers.

From the very first appearance of Sonagachi, one cannot say that it stands in its own rights. Unlike other red-light districts of India, sex workers here insist on the use of condoms and a research by Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC), a forum of male, female and transgender sex workers based in West Bengal,  an  reveals the percentage of condom use rose from 2.7% in 1992 to 91% in 2010.  Social media marketing and community based marketing methods are used to promote the usage of condoms as a part of AIDS prevention activities in the area and this has resulted in low HIV rate.

12% of the sex workers at Sonagachi, however,  are still out of the purview of safe sex and sex workers who are old succumb to unsafe sex in the fear of loosing clients.

DMSC is also serves as a platform for the fight against discrimination, fight for inclusion of social workers into the mainstream society, social recognition and for securing social existence of the sex workers and their children.

Commercial sex workers here are organised and sort of regulated with health benefits available at clinic run by DMSC, schools for the children of the sex workers even boarding schools for the “children of lesser” God exist in the outskirts of the city.

Children of the red-light districts are making rapid and great strides. Biswajit Nandi and Surajit Bhattacharya, sons of Sonagachi sex workers, are all set to dribble in Poland as a part of the Indian team to play the Homeless World Cup championship.

These children are making fast advancement in the field of education as well. Ratan Dalui, son  of a sex worker in Songachi, has acquired his masters degree solely on the basis of his talent and undying passion for education.  He now works at Songachi conducting workshops, door to door campaigns to raise educational awareness amongst the children, awareness related to the rights and laws of a commercial sex worker.

Minor girls are not allowed to get into the business at Sonagachi which itself is a great step of advancement, although some still manage to hide their actual age to sneak into the business.

These children express their ideas, thoughts and opinions through several dance dramas,plays, songs,mime plays, dance etc. “Amra Padatik” is the cultural wing of DMSC which is run by the children of sex workers. It is at through this organisation, the culturally inclined “Children of Lesser God” vents out all their joys, sorrows, life experience through creative forms. They grow into accomplished dancers, singers, actors.

Sonagachi is a much hyped red-light district, however, all the spotlight grabbing attention of people from different parts of the world wasn’t for the right reasons. Bharti Dey, secretary of DMSC, while referring to the Oscar winning documentary “Born into brothels: Calcutta’s Red Light Kids” by photojournalist Zana Briski, blames a few opportunist westerners for misrepresenting the sex workers of Sonagachi in the west. She says, the kids who were taken to the US for higher studies, ultimately returned back without being able to complete education there. The documentary has done no good to any of the kids of the locality and has immensely misrepresented the kids and Sonagachi though it bagged Oscar.

Divya (name changed) , a sex worker in Sonagachi, who grabs my visiting card at the clinic run by DMSC and says We come to the clinic, get almost all the health benefits, get tested for HIV but we are not being told if we test positive for HIV. She blames poverty for being pushed into flesh trade, however, she insists on being called sex worker and not a prostitute as like other professionals they too toil to earn their living. She says with a the smile on her face that never fades away   “I keep the visiting cards of journalists…all of them.”

The twinkle in her eyes hopes for a better future and a social recognition where she ,too, can be a part of the mainstream society as she is no different from any of us.

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