SEP. 2007 • Issue 6
In the Bengali language, Durbar means unstoppable. Based in West Bengal, the region of India with the major global city Kolkata (Calcutta), Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, or Durbar for short, is an organization of 65,000 sex workers. Durbar grounds its work in the “3 Rs” – Respect toward sex workers, Reliance on the knowledge of the community of sex workers, and Recognition of sex work as an occupation. In 1999, Durbar took over a government HIV prevention program, the Sonagachi Project, which now has HIV prevention programs in 49 sex work sites and outreach efforts serving 20,000 street workers and their clients. The group also provides low-cost HIV medications at its own clinics, education and vocational programs for sex workers and their children, cultural activities, savings and credit, social marketing of condoms, and self-regulatory boards in sex work sites to prevent trafficking.
The following is an excerpt from Durbar’s policy document on the inclusion of HIV positive sex workers in its work and leadership. It also offers insight into how stigma, violence and criminalization fuel HIV risk. In this document, “+ve” means “HIV positive.” It can be found in its entirety at http://www.durbar.org/new/a011_policy_document_on_psw.html.
DURBAR IS LIFE, AS LIFE IS DURBAR (Unstoppable)
Policy Document on Positive Sex Workers
… A significant proportion of the sex workers have good understanding about HIV transmission and high perception of personal risk. These findings challenge the premise of current approaches to reduce risks simply through raising awareness and knowledge. Our findings also indicate that sexual risk, when seen from the perspective of sex workers, has far more to do with our lack of power and inability to negotiate condom use in specific situations and with different types of partners. Thus, while some of us are willing to
insist on condom use with clients, it is in the context of sexual coercion by the police, brothel owners, criminals and others that there is a greater risk for HIV as many of our friends are unable to negotiate safe sex….
Violence of stigma, criminalization, and abuse
Violence is one of the more dire realities confronted by us in India and elsewhere. A number of studies underscore how violence undermines the safety and survival of sex workers, as well as our ability to participate in HIV prevention programmes and protect ourselves from infection. In India, violence against sex workers is not only widespread, but ranges across the spectrum of labeling, stigma, extortion, discrimination, verbal, physical and sexual abuse, and denial of rights to those who demand justice for ourselves. The violence comes from goondas (landlords/landladies), malkins (labour contractors) in the sex sector and, from the police….
Linking them to +ve network & strengthening +ve network (for both men and women)
DURBAR has formed a network of positives and also has linkages with other organisations of the positives. This helps the positive to voice their needs in the various stages of their lives and in cases of disease progression. This network of positives [stands] by the side of other positives who are being segregated from the community because of their positive status. Stigma and discrimination against an already oppressed minority of sex workers [is] doubled on the sole pretext of their being positive, and it is here that our network intervenes.
Developing social support network
Instead of labeling us sex workers as immoral, deviants, vectors, or victims, the society should view us as human beings, like any other, in need of and entitled to good health, dignity and a life free from violence and stigma in our own right….
Durbar has made a policy decision to reserve 10% of recruitment from the positive sex-workers
DURBAR with staff strength of over 800 has spread the reach of her work all over India. People from all strata of life had been working day and night to make DURBAR what it is at present. Staffs at various posts are recruited at regular intervals and generally the sex workers and their children are given priority in this matter. DURBAR has also made it a policy to reserve 10% of the quota for the positive sex workers so that they are never left behind. It is to make them understand that they are truly a part of this community-based organization and thus give them a new lease of life from the fear of death and that of being left out….