Sex workers set up co-op

Sumati Yengkhom

Sex workers of Sonagachhi were never allowed to open bank accounts. So, they set up their own cooperative, and a good one at that.

It now has an annual turnover of Rs 8 crore. This is their second success story, after the AIDS campaign that brought them kudos the world over.

Started and run by sex workers, Usha Co-operative Society (UCS) functions from seven districts in West Bengal. Now, Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC), the sex-workers'organisation, plans to replicate its success story across the state.

This story of woman empowerment from a most unlikely place began around a decade ago. When the sex workers were turned away by banks, they refused to give up. Twelve of them got together to form the UCS.

It now has 8,254 members and an impressive turnover - every paisa coming from the sex workers themselves.

UCS gives loans to sex workers for the education of their children, medical treatment and even for starting their own enterprenuership.

"Sex workers do not have access to banks, so they were being exploited by local moneylenders whose interests were as high as 750% per annum. This society was started to provide them economic security,"said DMSC chief advisor Samarjit Jana.

Thanks to the cooperative, Rita Rai, a sex worker, did not have to run from pillar-to-post to find Rs 2 lakh for her mother's open heart surgery two months ago. She got a loan from the society and had her mother operated at a premier city hospital.

"I do not want my sons to stay in the red light area. So I took a loan and bought a flat in Rajarhat, where they are putting up with my mother, far away from this place. Thanks to the society,"says Sujata Dutta, who is also secretary of UCS.

All the 12 board members are sex workers. The annual membership fee is just Rs 25. The sex workers have to deposit a minimum of Rs 10 per day. Every transaction is computerised.

The society even has 35 collectors to collect daily fees from those who cannot come to the UCS office. It has started focussing on the education of the children of sex workers.

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