Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee

Heading Needed

USHA -The Scalpel and Sword of the sex workers' movement.

USHA is the first sex workers' co-operative in Asia and is one of the largest and most successful Co-operative among many co-operatives in West Bengal.

But why a cooperative? How does it fit into the program of HIV intervention or for that matter the sex workers' movement?

Usha presents an outstanding case-study to demonstrate the complex processes that underlie social transformation of health and development initiatives of a marginalized community like sex workers. Usha was registered in 1995, The need for such an initiative was felt by the sex workers in the early days of HIV intervention program. Usha has been playing a crucial and substantive role in the life of individual sex workers for the sex worker community and the ongoing movement of the Durbar.

The situation prior to Durbar

Prior to Durbar's formation, sex workers' lives were characterized by pervasive economic insecurity and a lack of control over their earnings. This had both direct and indirect influence on their ability to insist on safer sex with their customers.

For sex workers in India, economic exclusion from government and other formal financial institutions is both a cause and an effect of their occupation. Sex workers usually come from economically marginalized communities where they are often denied the education or skills to secure employment in the formal sector in our country coming from low socio economic and caste backgrounds finds most women income generating occupations which are low paid and often disrespected by the upper caste mainstream society e.g. domestic work, sweeper, sex work, construction work or alike.

The political and gendered economy of sex work is organized as a 'underground trade' what absolves sex workers control over their income under these circumstances sex workers are often compelled to pay bribes to number of stakeholders of the sex trade such as police, local gangs or excise department officials. Husbands, babus and families do often make unreasonable claims on her earnings. Within the sex trade settings earnings are often shared with madams or pimps. Gaining access to a bank or financial institution is often difficult for sex workers as many of them is unable to produce proof of identity (e.g. ration cards or tenancy documents) in addition on to that they required to be introduced by an existing account holder (which again, many sex workers cannot procure) over and above the staff members of financial institution often treat them in a disrespectful manner, treating them as bad women or even as dirts.

As a result sex workers were forced to resort to a informal financial delivery system run by mostly unscrupulous individual or organization. Sex workers used to save money with them and could taken against exorbitant e interest rates leading to cycles of perpetual indebtedness. In some arrangements, sex workers' had to work as bonded labour until they can pay off their debts. Indebtedness also prevents sex workers from being able to save money to secure future life. They were unable to for the future or accumulate enough capital to move out of the occupational or to engage as independent labour moving .

It was soon realized that unless sex workers' develop their economically security there is very little hope to ensure safer sex practices for each one every sex act.

A dream

PEs often used to raise their issues related to economic exploitation in different project meetings. In line with the dialogical philosophy of the organization, SHIP responded by initiating debates with peer educators about potential solutions, and finally came to an agreement to form a Co-operative society that would be run and led by the sex workers. A staffmember who had links with a fishermen co-operative society took a groups of PEs for a exposure visits to help them to understand the concept and to help realize the potential benefits of initiating such a venture. After initial reservations about their own abilities, and after much dialogue and debate, the PEs finally agreed to pursue this option, and a number of experienced and influential friends of SHIP were requested to help set up the co-operative society of and by the sex workers. Accordingly they collect the relevant paper from the cooperative department and went for its submission. However the Government Co-operative Department informed them that registration of a sex workers' co-operative is not possible as the cooperative low regulating co-operatives initiative had a clause which requires members of the propose society should been a good moral character. After lot of pernation, one of the staff member of the cooperative dept suggested that sex workers should register the organization as a housewives' organization what could bypass the legal obstacle. The PEs and SHIP could not agree to this compromise formula as one of their broader objective was to gain greater social recognition for sex work as a profession. Consequently, they started an intensive lobbying and advocacy campaign to gain draw support to form their own cooperative. Durbar finally managed to gain access to the highest level government officials, culminating in a number of meetings with the honorable Minister of the Co-operatives.

The Co-operative Minister took initiative to dissolve the controversial clause of the cooperative society registration act to help sex workers cooperative act registered. The clause related to good moral character' was removed and USHA came into existence as the first cooperative of sex workers in the country.

The fight within the community and against the exploiters

USHA represented a symbolic victory on two counts. First, sex workers were granted formal recognition by the State as an occupation. Secondly, the establishment of USHA posed a direct challenge to the vested interest groups who used to exploit sex workers earnings by all possible means.

PEs were given leadership positions in the newly developed USHA who got engaged into local level advocacy to gain support from key local power brokers. At the local level, the money lending nexus fiercely resisted USHA, However USHA became more and more popular among the sex workers as it is their colleague who used to approach them. Money lenders in these sex work sites) collectively tried to resist the success of Usha, They lodge complaints to local councilors that Usha is involved in misappropriation of funds. A lot of advocacy at the State and local level of the ruling political party was done to counter the situation.

In addition to managing resistance from local power brokers, SHIP/Durbar and Usha leaders also faced considerable resistance initially from within the sex worker community, including some PEs. Bitter experience had taught the PEs and other sex workers to be suspicious of any 'new deals' involving money. In spite of the exorbitant interest rates offered by local money lenders, the sex workers knew these individuals well, and they were always available to provide loans without any paper work A section of sex workers trusted these money lenders and felt they could be relied upon. In time, as the PEs saw that their money was being returned to them on demand and that they were earning good rates of interest, their trust in the scheme grew and they began to encourage other sex workers to join USHA. Their confidence was further boosted when USHA received Rs.100,000 seed funding from the State Government's Department of Co-operatives.

A daily collection strategy enabled USHA to expand its workforce. USHA took this as an opportunity to expand its reach further within the sex work community, specifically - to provide opportunities to sex workers' children, and to facilitate their greater involvement in the Durbar movement. 'If at that time we took outsiders as daily collectors, then sex workers would resist or would not response positively, but when we introduced these daily collectors and told them, 'look they are our children, they also stay in brothels - they are like your children', then they started trusting these daily collectors.

Usha went beyond the micro-credit program 

Another key activity of USHA was the development of a Condom Social Marketing program in 1998, referred to as Basanti Sena. This occurred in response to SHIP's finders suggesting that the free distribution of condoms should be phased out, and that, for the sake of long term sustainability, sex workers' should be encouraged to purchase their own supply of condoms.

None of these initiatives were easy to implement - introduction of a regular savings habit, or the new system of social marketing. USHA workers faced considerable resistance and were required to display exceptional perseverance and persuasiveness, "They thought that we are selling the free condom in the name of social marketing and making profit out of it." They countered by saying that Usha was their own Co-operative and looked after the betterment of sex workers. When you purchase condom from outsiders, you have to purchase it by cash, and those condoms are also of inferior quality have no expiry date. Usha Co-operative was supplying better quality condoms and even selling them on short credit.

Despite these initial difficulties, USHA now has the highest repayment rate of all the co-operatives in West Bengal and has begun to provide sex workers with larger loans which can enable them to make bolder investments or to take significant life steps:

A decision was taken by Durbar in 2000 that USHA workers could not simultaneously be intervention project staff or PEs. This enabled respective groups of workers to devote their full attention to their current activities. 'So now when general sex workers become the board members, they gradually understand the whole process of Usha. When these people go into their area and tell people about Usha, then the news of Usha's activities and interest in Usha spread in the community'.

New phase of the movement and the new life of sex workers

The impact of USHA has been multiple and acted synergistically whereby individual outcomes (e.g. FRCA registration) have enabled Durbar to expand and develop in many different ways. This happened at a number of levels - for Durbar as an institution, for sex workers as a collective group, and for individuals. There is a reported change in the money-lending economy of the sex work sites, where moneylenders are said to have reduced their interest rates by up to 50% in response to competition from USHA.

Supporting the movement by building assets

USHA now acts as Durbar's primary fiduciary agent, enabling the organization to manage its own resources independently. It is the only sex workers' group in India which enjoys this independent status. This was achieved by obtaining FCRA registration (permission to receive foreign funds). This in turn has enabled USHA, and therefore Durbar, to build up a significant asset base and to safeguard the long term sustainability of the organization.

USHA's financial success has enabled it to take loans and invest financial surpluses to build Durbar's capital assets, such as purchasing land and properties, including the main Durbar office building located within Sonagachi area. The fact that a sex workers' organization can now unproblematically secure bank loans represents a remarkable shift in social attitudes to sex workers, and testifies to Durbar's success in challenging sex work-related stigma. Greater financial independence has also enabled Durbar to be pro-active about developing its own programs and initiating new programs in response to community needs rather than donor priorities. For example, Durbar has been able to start new clinics and education centers in district sex work sites before official donor funding was secured, further enabling it to build trust among local communities, simultaneously providing evidence of its efficacy to convince agencies to provide longer term support.

USHA has enabled sex workers to break through a number of barriers to social and political participation.

The formation of USHA necessitated the formal recognition of a sex workers' group in a political forum (through registration with the government), and in social and business forums (through receiving bank loans)

USHA's success and involvement in national and state level training and policy making forums has the potential to influence government policy vis-a-vis support of sex work groups and vis a vis co-operative management. USHA has set a precedent that other States and groups can follow.

Sex workers now have a powerful voice in the State Co-operative department

USHA's example means that sex workers are now increasingly able to take loans and deal with financial institutions independently as citizens and workers.

There has been a change in social norms vis a vis sex work, evidenced by the willingness of banks and vendors to do business with sex workers - a situation that would have been unthinkable ten years previously.

Impacts on Individual Sex Workers and on their Working Environment

It enabled sex workers to confidently negotiate safer sex with the customers and gave them a sense of security. Now if a sex worker thinks that she would refuse a customer (for not using condom or for her own illness), she can do that, because she knows that her savings would tide her over the next few days. An increased ability to control one's working environment and so become independent of madams, has also been observed along with a greater ability to plan for the future and enhance one's own and children's life opportunities:

Finally, greater economic security also contributes greater power in sex workers' relationships with their babus - Individual sex workers (who are not Durbar staff or members or activists) express a general appreciation of the services that USHA offered (though not all sex workers used USHA, and not all were able to articulate the ways in which its services benefited themselves or their community). However, some older sex workers, who had been exposed to both systems (USHA and the money lenders) were able to clearly identify the impacts :

'I am a member of USHA. There are lots of benefits. If one borrowed money on kisti then one has to return Rs.700 for every Rs.500 paid - and because I can't read, I can't find out what they write as well……I am saving with USHA for the last 5 years. I know my money is secure with Usha and will earn me good interest. I needed to have access to quick loans in cases of emergency….. at USHA, the loan is processed quickly and the interest rate is affordable. There are other benefits as well. If I get ill, if I get this AIDS disease, then we'll not be able to entertain customers, the money we have saved will help us.'

Here is Usha's growth at a glance

Growth of capital and loan to members

























Growth of capital and loan to members














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Loan to members (Rs. In lakh)












A Story of USHA

cEk Choritrahin Samobayer Kotha

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