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Collectivisation of Women in Sex Work

By – Aditya Bastola

The document intends to draw some of the theoretical discussion on collectivisation of

women in sex work through a historical perspective that have lead the women to mobilise for
a collective action while living in brothels. It also intends to highlight the pioneers of
women’s movement which have motivated other women in sex work across India for
collectivisation due to a popular believe for prevention of HIV/AIDS and meeting health and
social needs associated with the malady. The process of collectivisation is mainly reflected on
Sonagachi Project and Saheli HIV/AIDS Karyakarta Sangh in Kolkata and Pune

Community Organisation a way forward for Collectivisation

According to Nag (2005), Collectivisation of women in sex work across India has been on the
grounds of HIV/AIDS project strategies which relied on Peer Education System.

ALTHOUGH project implemented for prevention of HIV/AIDS, the primary strategy has
been to mobilise women in sex work for collective action, it is vital to understand how one
relates to such a locality especially red light areas sited in almost all cities across India.

Prior we reflect to locations of sex workers living in red light areas, one requires augmenting
the perception of communities and their process of mobilisation. It is often believed
communities are described as certain social realities of human life such as; a) small
geographical unit, local unit with many areas of common life, b) an association
[formal/informal] of people with common like, but do not reside at the same neighbourhood,
c) localised large unit but little common like throughout a process of interaction and mutual

Understanding the complexities where rural villages or unit may fit in the above mentioned
categorisation, in the Indian context, classification possibly will not always suit, as such
communities may at times consist of small groups which have a caste/religion base and very
rarely homogenise except for tribal hamlets. It is this conceptualisation which supports to
identify communities with locality and thus constrain the concept where we tend to omit
communities which provide certain functions to the society.

In this conceptuality process, when we try to analyse the situation that persist in an urban
setting, all neighbourhood is perceived as little communities as rightly discussed by Robert
Redfield where the characteristics are distinctive small size, homogeneity of the in habitats
and specific physical geographical and psychological boundaries but such discussion have
certain limitations which tend to exclude the similar interest and mutual dependency and
primarily broadening the horizon of boundaries. In fact at such level when geographical
limits are not ascribed criteria, the exclusive population tends to congregate into the
framework of functional community.
In the case of red light areas sited across Indian cities, there are women belonging from
different caste, religion, culture, and region, who have been mostly forced to live in a brothel
and perform sex work as their source of livelihood and significantly perceived as fate from
various walks of life. Without ignoring the fact, they perform a certain role, fulfilling the
sexual urges of men. As one cannot disregard, the society being driven by patriarchal norms,
where men have an active role and decides what is wrong and good whereas the women are
perceived as passive and follow the thinking of men. Such discriminative inhibition and
foremost the stigma attached towards sex work often ignore the existence of sex workers as a
community within a community.

As the first HIV/AIDS incidence was identified in 1986, Chennai, then there was a growing
concern amongst the social think-tanks to address a preventive measure before the disease
was widespread and affected the economy of the country. They targeted women in sex work
as a mean which could prevent the spread of the disease and established a working model
based on Peer Education, who could educate other women in sex work for prevention of
HIV/AIDS infection. The initiative undertaken by the government recognised sex workers as
a unit of community and first launched the community lead target intervention programme at
Sonagachi, Kolkata also known by Sonagachi Project.

Awakening to the concern, various government and non-government organisation extended

their work related to HIV/AIDS awareness generation amongst the women in sex work across
India. In this process, the agents recognised the sex workers as a community. They diagnosed
the problem on the broader framework of community based on geographical boundaries. As a
result a need for community organisation was felt amongst these external agents. They
trained women in sex work who could impart knowledge and information to other women
regarding to HIV/AIDS at the brothel level. They were coined and strategized under the
banner of Peer Education System. A ‘multiple approach’ was adopted, where experts
designed a variety of services such as provision of medical services through referrals to
government and non-government clinics and hospitals, treating sexually transmitted
infections (STIs) and other general health facilities.

In this process, it reflects a community discontent was created by the external agents who in
turn mobilised its members for organisation and developing an association to address the
issue at the larger level. The discontent was created through door-to-door visits by the Peers
Educators at the brothel level, awareness generation about general health etc.

As rightly argued by Ross (1955), Community Organisation...as the process of bringing

about and maintaining a progressively more effective adjustment between social welfare
resources and social welfare needs within a geographical area of functional field. The
organisation of women in sex work have brought about a realisation towards the community
discontent which was focused on the health aspect and channelled into an organisation (Peer
Education System) and shared widely in the community for its sustainability.

Amongst some external agents, their process of organising the women in sex work lead to
collectivise the community members as a forum of women in sex work. This experience
could be shared through the initiative of Sonagachi Project by the Government of India which
lead to establishment of ‘Darbur Mahila Samanwaya Committee’ (DMSC popularly known
as Darbur), Kolkatta and similarly Saheli HIV/AIDS Karyakarta Sangh by People’s Health
Organisation (earlier known by Indian Health Organisation) in Pune, Maharashtra.


1. Kampala Kempadoo and Jo Doezema, Global Sex Workers: Right, Resistance and
Redefinition, New York, 1998

2. Murray G.Ross & B.W.Lappin,1955, Community Organisation: Theory, Principles

and Practice, Harper & Row Publishers, New York.

3. www.epw.org.in/epw/uploads/articles/1420.pdf (accessed on 10/03/2008)

4. www.genderhealth.org/pubs/SANGRAMdesc.pdf (accessed on 10/3/2008)

5. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16615869 (accessed on 15/03/2008)

6. http://www.khpt.org/sahabhagini.htm (accessed on 15/03/2008)