There was little, apparently, to set December 1 apart from most other days of the year. Yet, on this day, unheralded, a silent revolution took place. In a three-storeyed office in an old Kolkata neighborhood in West Bengal, a new director was appointed to head Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC), the largest organization working with commercial sex workers in the country.
The appointment of 40-something Bharati Dey as Programme Director - is significant: for she is an ex-sex worker. The appointment - Dey is boss to 1,000-odd staff members - is more than just a defiant gesture. It has given new meaning to the concept of empowerment of the marginalized. Among the plethora of organizations working with prostitutes, few are managed by sex workers themselves, and none have an ex-sex worker as the topmost executive.
Seated in her Balaram De Street office in north Kolkata, Dey is a sartorially elegant, articulate, confident and businesslike woman. In the hot seat for two weeks now, she is also extremely busy. "I am in direct charge of all our projects, ranging from sexually transmitted disease (STD)/HIV intervention to anti-trafficking and education, so I have a hectic schedule" - she explains why this interview took so long to coordinate.
From a faceless entity in the seamy world of prostitution to a prime mover in the NGO circuit, it has been quite a journey for a small town girl. "I came into the sex trade voluntarily," asserts Dey. Her story, though, does not suggest unrestricted choice.
Born in suburban Naihati, in the district of North 24 Paraganas, Dey left home when she was only 16. "My father died when I was in Class VIII," she recalls. Only sheer grit saw her through the school-leaving examinations. Armed with the certificate, she left for Bhagalpur to work as a sales representative in a cosmetics firm.
Love and marriage followed soon after, but Dey's husband already had a wife by a previous marriage. She left him, but by then, she also had a son to support. When she was left to fend for herself, her landlady, a sex worker herself, introduced her to prostitution. "Even when I was working as a salesgirl, I would often be asked to offer sexual services. So why not do it as a job and get paid for it?" She started operating in Titagarh, a North 24 Paraganas suburb as famous for its industries as its roughnecks and anti-socials.
"What I was not ready for was the environment I found myself in. Alcohol, abuse, beating and rape were routine," Dey remembers. Which is why when DMSC reached out to the Titagarh red light area in 1997, Dey found herself warming up to the ideals the organization stood for. The next year she became secretary of the Titagarh branch committee. Then there was no looking back. As she got more and more involved with the organization - whose ranks were fast swelling - she gradually quit sex work and devoted all her time to DMSC. Her organizing skills were noticed as she steadily climbed the rungs. Finally, before taking up the reins of the organization, she was appointed project coordinator of the prestigious Sonagachi Project.
Launched in 1992 by the All India Institute of Hygiene and Public Health, the Sonagachi Project began as a small health promotion project to inform sex workers in Kolkata about HIV/AIDS and promote condom use in this community. Right from its inception, it emphasized the actual representation and active participation of sex workers. It was probably this approach that made the project work. While HIV-prevalence rates mushroomed alarmingly throughout the country over the last decade, in the vulnerable red light district of Sonagachi, they remained stubbornly low. As the project went on to gain recognition and acclaim, the sex worker community it served came forward to develop their own network, DMSC, in 1995. DMSC took over management of the project in 1999.
Over the years, DMSC has brought over 65,000 prostitutes in West Bengal into its fold. Its organizational wing functions as a sex workers' trade union of sorts. The project wing, on the other hand, manages multifarious funded and non-funded projects that aim to improve the quality of the lives of sex workers and provide them with an enabling environment.
"We have done a lot, but there is much left to be done," reflects Dey. "As director I would like achieve the 100 per cent mark in condom use. The current rate is just 80 per cent," she states. She would also like to give a boost to DMSC's anti-trafficking work. Currently, DMSC runs self-regulatory boards in 29 red light pockets in West Bengal. Comprising 11 members - 40 per cent of whom belong to the community and 60 per cent include prominent members of society like lawyers and doctors - a self-regulatory board monitors the entry of new girls in its area of operation. If any of the girls is a minor or a victim of trafficking, the board sends her back to her family, or if the family is unwilling, to an alternative shelter. The official registration of these boards, Dey feels, will go a long way in combating trafficking.
Dey's pet scheme, however, is the drive to get the government to legalize prostitution. The job market is shrinking daily, especially for unskilled workers. There are so many women who have families to support. "What will they do? Where will they go?" she argues. There are hundreds of women who tell their families that they are daily laborers in Kolkata. They come to the city from the suburbs by the first train in the morning, work as prostitutes and return home in the evening. Their only concern is to sustain their families. "The government talks of rehabilitation," she goes on. "But how many will it rehabilitate and where? What about the Sonagachi stamp that no rehabilitation can erase? It is just not feasible."
Dey's personal experience endorses her argument. For long years, her brothers had no idea about the nature of that work. Ironically, it was only when she became director of DMSC and had her name and picture splashed in some newspapers that they came to know. They were scandalized. They questioned her son about it, but the gutsy child of this gutsy woman retorted that after years of neglect, they had no right to act as moral guardians now. But the question is, if even her exalted status gives her no immunity from social opprobrium, what about the millions who have no such safeguard?
These are tricky questions with no sure answers. What is certain, however, is that the government can no longer afford to treat prostitution as an isolated issue. It cannot speak only of economic rehabilitation without considering the social factor. DMSC has given sex workers a certain amount of respect and social recognition. The government must match its efforts measure-for-measure before making more half-hearted gestures.