Workers Rights in South Asia
for Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC), India
In a Reuter story titled, "South Asia's prostitutes gather to press
rights," by Rupam Banerjee, submitted from Calcutta on April 30th, 1997,
Banerjee reports that,"More than 1,000 a prostitutes gathered on Tuesday
at a conference to discuss AIDS prevention and ways to legalise their
business. The prostitutes, from India and neighboring Nepal and Bangladesh,
also staged a protest march from Calcutta's red light district to demand
protection from what they called police harassment."
Banerjee interviewed prostitutes associated with this protest. One woman,
Malati Dassaid spoke of working very long hours and spending nightsin
damp jails because she had not paid "protection money" to policemen
who demanded bribes.
"We want the right to regulate our own lives both within the profession
and outside," Das shouted as she led the march. "They (police) often
humiliate us and torture us," said Sandhya Mukherjee, the secretary
of the Mahila Samanwaya Committee (MSC), orwomen's cooperative committee,
a voluntary organization formed by prostitutes at Sonagachi. Banerjee
reported that the march was also attended by social workers also attended
the conference, which prostitutes described as a path-breaking event.
In addition to grass roots participation, the meeting was backed and
inaugurated by Prasanta Sur, Health Minister in West Bengal's communist
According to Banerjee, "The prostitutes marched from Sonagachi, the
100-year-old district that is the center of Calcutta's sex industry,
to College Street in the heart of the West Bengal capital." Children
accompanied some women on the march. Banerjee characterized the children
as 'illegitimate.' Banerjee reports that the march "brought Calcutta's
snarling traffic to a grinding halt."
Prostitutes' rights and trafficking
One issue in a debate among international women's organizations about
trafficking emerged in the context of the this demonstration. The prostitutes'
rights perspective opposes and warns of anti-trafficking proponents
who recommend stricter enforcement of current anti-trafficking laws.
Systems based on such laws, enforced by immigrations officials, grant
extraordinary powers to the police and immigration officials.
This has been historically problematic. According to Banerjee, " The
sex workers demanded the scrapping of an Indian law against "immoral
traffic" that stops them soliciting customers." This perspective is
central in the prostitutes' rights stand against exploitation of prostitutes
and women. Prostitutes' rights advocates from many countries propose
several alternatives including theenforcement of laws against abuse,
kidnapping, etc. enforced against all those who abuse prostitutes, including
Self-regulation Banerjee states that, "They called for the establishment
up of an independent governing board as the first step towards self-regulation..."
[Editor's note: This demand is mirrored in similar documents created
by prostitutes' groups in the United States (San Francisco Task Force
on Prostitution) and Australia (South Australia's Brindahl Bill by the
Committee to Decriminalise Prostitution).] The prostitutes in Calcutta
also called for a self-regulatory council. Such local councils (comprised
of workers, legal and healthadvocates) may do much to address corruption,
to protect those who are beginning to work as prostitutes. This is an
alternative to current police control of prostitutes mentioned above.
"Hundreds of girls from poor families in Bangladesh, Nepal and inIndia's
poor rural areas are forced into prostitution, often at a very young
age," Banerjee reports. Banjeree portrayed the social workers as 'urging'
"prostitutes to ensure customers used contraceptives to prevent Acquired
Immuno-Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS)." Banerjee added that, "Many Indian
men who visit prostitutes are reluctant to wear condoms, which they
say reduce sexual pleasure."