Tag Archives: equality

Sex Workers in Kolkata Celebrate Durga Puja

Until last year, Kolkata’s sex workers were prevented from joining in with the city’s elaborate celebrations for Durga Puja – the most anticipated Hindu festival in the Bengali calendar. This photo-essay showcases snapshots from a sindurkhela (literally: ‘playing with vermillion’) organised by the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC) in the heart of Kolkata’s largest red-light district as part of this year’s Puja celebrations.

Community members and visitors admire the beautifully adorned pandal.

Community members and visitors admire the beautifully adorned pandal.

In Hinduism, Goddess Durga represents the embodiment of shakti, the divine feminine force that governs cosmic creation, existence and change. It is held that Durga emerged from the collective energies of all of the gods – including Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma – to vanquish the demon Mahishasura. Durga Puja (‘Pujo’ in Bengali) is the celebration of Durga’s annual visit to earth – understood to be her natal home – which takes place in September or October. During this time, communities around West Bengal construct elaborate pandals – temporary temples made from bamboo and cloth – to house clay idols depicting Durga slaying Mahishasura. The idols are worshipped for a number of days before being carried to the river Ganga for immersion.

Historically, the social stigma surrounding sex work meant that sex workers were prohibited by police and community members from taking part in Kolkata’s famous Puja celebrations, despite the long-standing tradition that involves collecting clay from the doorstep of sex workers to use in the making of idols (the clay is thought to symbolise men’s virtue). However, after tireless campaigning by the DMSC – Kolkata’s first and largest sex workers’ collective – in 2013 the Calcutta High Court ruled that sex workers would be permitted to organise their own community Puja in Sonagachi, Kolkata’s main red-light area.

Women from the community prepare Durga for her onward journey.

Women from the community prepare Durga for her onward journey.

This year’s Puja – organised by the DMSC – was a four-day affair starting on the 1st of October and ending with a sindurkhela ritual on the 4th. During sindurkhela, women smear each other’s faces with vermillion – a red-coloured power typically used to mark the foreheads of (‘respectable’) married women; the ritual signifies Durga’s impending farewell from earth and her natal family. In Sonagachi, however, people of all ages and backgrounds joined in the fun, smearing each other’s cheeks and foreheads in a statement of solidarity and hope for a fairer and safer future for sex workers.

Next year, sex workers in Sonagachi will organise an even bigger Puja celebration. At the opening ceremony, Dr. Sashi Panja, State minister for Women and Child Development, pledged that efforts would be made to help DMSC organisers put together an especially large celebrationfor future Pujas.

However, while sex workers in Sonagachi this year celebrated, others across West Bengal – including in areas such as Kalighat, Boubazar in north Kolkata, Seoraphuli in Hooghly district and Durgapur in Burdwan district – were left disappointed after police refused them permission to host their own community Pujas. News of this decision came just days before the celebrations were set to commence, leaving organisers extremely frustrated. These communities will now have to apply for permission from either the Calcutta High Court or Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee before making plans to take part in next year’s Puja.

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Women cover Durga with flower garlands and offer her sweets.

Dr. Smarajit Jana of the DMSC explained that the police decision to bar sex workers from celebrating (with the exception of those residing in Sonagachi) marked a huge setback for the sex workers’ rights movement in India, and that while rejoicing in this year’s Puja organised by the DMSC, the fight very much continues.

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Women prepare to bid a tearful adieu to Durga.

Established in the early 1990s, the DMSC today comprises some 65,000 sex worker members across West Bengal. It campaigns regionally, nationally and internationally for sex workers’ rights, but is best known for its HIV prevention work – particularly, the Sonagachi Project which uses a community development approach aimed at empowering sex workers.

During sindurkhela, women smear each other’s faces with vermillion – a red-coloured power typically used to mark the foreheads of (‘respectable’) married women; the ritual signifies Durga’s impending farewell from earth and her natal family.

During sindurkhela, women smear each other’s faces with vermillion – a red-coloured power typically used to mark the foreheads of (‘respectable’) married women; the ritual signifies Durga’s impending farewell from earth and her natal family.

The reverberating beats of the dhak (drum) are an important part of Puja celebrations. The dhak is a huge drum that is played during Puja and is sometimes embellished with long white or multi-coloured feathers.

The reverberating beats of the dhak (drum) are an important part of Puja celebrations. The dhak is a huge drum that is played during Puja and is sometimes embellished with long white or multi-coloured feathers.

Women dance in front of Durga to the beats of the dhak.

Women dance in front of Durga to the beats of the dhak.

A sweet-smelling, white smoke wafts through the air as women dance. The smoke comes from earthen pots called dhunochis, which are carried by women as they dance. Burning coconut shells are placed inside the pots along with powdered incense, known as dhuno, to create the smoke.

A sweet-smelling, white smoke wafts through the air as women dance. The smoke comes from earthen pots called dhunochis, which are carried by women as they dance. Burning coconut shells are placed inside the pots along with powdered incense, known as dhuno, to create the smoke.

Dhunochi dancers balance the dhunochis with the base placed on their palms, between their teeth or on their foreheads. They then swirl their bodies to the drum beats while carrying the burning dhunochis.

Dhunochi dancers balance the dhunochis with the base placed on their palms, between their teeth or on their foreheads. They then swirl their bodies to the drum beats while carrying the burning dhunochis.

This photo-essay was created by Mirna Guha and Lauren Wilks.

Mirna Guha was born and brought up in Kolkata, India, and graduated from Jadavpur University with a Master’s degree in English Literature and Language in 2010. She has worked with young people on issues of sexual violence and gender equality across South Asia and is now pursuing a PhD in the School for International Development at the University of East Anglia, UK. She is currently in Kolkata conducting fieldwork with rural and socio-economically marginalised women, particularly sex workers. Her research interests include migration, social development and human rights. M.Guha@uea.ac.uk

Lauren Wilks is a PhD Candidate in Sociology at the University of Edinburgh. Her research focuses on the experiences of commuting women domestic workers in West Bengal, India, and is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). Previously, she was a Student Fellow with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
L.Wilks@sms.ed.ac.uk

On whose behalf? Sex work in Scotland and the need for proper debate

At the end of July, it emerged that sex workers had not been invited to an official meeting concerned with a proposal currently before the Scottish Parliament to criminalise the purchase of sex in Scotland.

Speaking to the Herald, Neil McCulloch of SCOT-PEP – Scotland’s leading sex workers’ rights organisation – expressed the group’s frustration at being barred from the meeting, despite previously having been invited to similar debates. ‘Disastrous as this legislation would prove in Scotland,’ McCulloch commented, ‘we nevertheless sought to play a constructive role in discussions and are shocked to have been excluded entirely.’ Speaking on the same issue to The Courier, a sex worker called Cat commented, ‘It’s outrageous to hold a meeting to discuss sex work and to specifically exclude sex workers and sex worker-led organisations.’

SCOT-PEP’s frustration is compounded by the fact that this is not the first time they have been excluded from such meetings. The organisation argues that the recent decision to bar them from discussions is symptomatic of a much wider problem with the debate on criminalisation: the silencing of sex workers. ‘Would you have a meeting to discuss whether to legislate supposedly to help any other marginalised group and yet explicitly bar them and their representatives from the discussion?’ asks McCulloch. ‘It can’t be right for a politician to try to work in this way, without even wanting to hear the voices of the people most directly affected.’

Rhoda Grant MSP, architect of the 2012 Criminalisation of the Purchase of Sex (Scotland) Bill, explained the recent decision to exclude SCOT-PEP, claiming that the meeting was ‘for those who support the principles of criminalising the purchase of sex.’ In Scotland it is possible for a consenting adult aged 18 or over to have sex with another consenting adult in return for payment without any offence being committed by either person; the proposed bill would make it a punishable crime to buy sex. Pro-criminalisation campaigners believe that such a move would reduce demand for sex work and thus sexual exploitation.

The debate on criminalisation aside, it is unfathomable that in a society that aspires to be among the fairest and most inclusive in the world, policies are being discussed and formed on behalf of groups without considering their opinions and experiences. When news first broke of Grant’s Bill, an article in The Skinny pointed out that if an MSP put forward a bill affecting LGBT communities but refused to include LGBT voices, there would, quite rightly, be outcry. The need for proper debate is especially important as the Bill has not yet passed (although its passage looks increasingly likely without the opposition of the late Margo MacDonald, one of Scotland’s leading sex workers’ rights campaigners, who passed away on the 4th of April).

The debate over the visibility and legality of sex work in Scotland is, of course, part of a much wider and complex conversation about the moral status of sex work, reflected in the varying policies across the globe. In New Zealand, all activities connected with selling sex have been legal since 2003; whereas, in parts of Europe, the United States and India, an ‘end demand’ agenda has gained ground in recent years, resulting in a series of policy changes aimed at restricting the movement of sex workers and criminalising clients. The movement to stamp out demand for sex work in Scotland is merely one part of this global policy conundrum.

Despite this, the recent crackdown on sex work in Edinburgh – evidenced by brothel raids and an increasingly influential criminalisation lobby – is surprising as it succeeds a twenty-year period of tacit tolerance towards sex work and, importantly, engagement with sex workers’ rights organisations. In the early 1980s, when increasing supplies of heroin and high youth unemployment gave Edinburgh the unlikely reputation as the ‘AIDS capital of Europe’, the City Council responded by implementing a policy of ‘harm reduction’ towards sex work and the use of intravenous drugs. It was as part of this pragmatic response that the Council established an informal (non-harassment) tolerance zone for sex work in Leith – a former port area to the north of the city – and a tacit agreement between the Council, sauna owners and the police which allowed sex workers to practice their trade relatively safely.

Until recently, the famed ‘model of tolerance’ was widely considered a successful strategy for reducing harm, both towards those involved in sex work and the wider public. Saunas – although by no means problem free – became a part of Edinburgh’s ambivalent identity, accounting for the city’s reputation as one of the UK’s top destinations for sex tourists. However, national and international pressure to criminalise the sex industry, combined with changes in police structure and ideology have placed Edinburgh’s model of tolerance under strain.

A major influence on the drive to criminalise sex work is the newly-merged national police force, Police Scotland, which came into force in April 2013 and saw control of law enforcement in the capital effectively transferred to Strathclyde, where a ‘zero tolerance’ policy towards sex work has long been in place. Just two months after Police Scotland became operational raids took place across 13 venues in Edinburgh, 11 of which were licensed as saunas and widely acknowledged to be operating as brothels. Sex workers and proprietors were arrested and six of the saunas had their licenses immediately suspended.

The stated justification for the operation was intelligence of ‘criminal activity’, including reports of drug offences and human trafficking.  Reports of foreign nationals being strip-searched, held without food or water and questioned by UK Border Agency officials suggest, however, that a variety of agendas were at play. In particular, these raids have been seen as an attempt to crack down on ‘illegal’ immigration.

Following a public consultation towards the end of 2013, the Council also decided in February of this year not to renew licenses for the remaining saunas; council officials explained that saunas will not be automatically closed but will be allowed to continue unlicensed. Several women’s organisations, such as Zero Tolerance, welcomed the decision, explaining that, rather than minimising harm, the licensing system had facilitated the sexual exploitation of women.

Sex workers’ rights campaigners, on the other hand, argue that removing licensing legislation will place sex workers at greater risk by forcing them to work in unregulated flats where they will be more vulnerable to unsafe sex, violence and exploitation. Indeed, since the decision to remove sauna licenses in February, sex workers from Edinburgh have spoken out about their fears of walking the streets or working in flats alone. Sarah, a sex worker from Edinburgh, recounted her ordeal of being beaten and raped by a client as she worked alone from a flat in Perth in central Scotland – something many more sex workers are being compelled to do due to a lack of safe working spaces following the decision to remove sauna licenses.

Alongside changes in policing, an international and national movement to tackle sex trafficking and organised crime is adding to the pressure for more punitive policies towards sex work. According to an inquiry conducted in 2011 by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Scotland is trailing behind the rest of the UK in human trafficking convictions; and with the upcoming referendum on Scottish independence, politicians are under pressure to appear tough in the battle against ‘modern-day slavery’. The referendum is also likely to be among the reasons why Scottish politicians are proposing a wide-ranging anti-trafficking Bill which will define the crime of human trafficking in Scots law for the first time.

But while many believe that the answer to sexual exploitation in Scotland lies in the criminalisation of the sex industry and increased law enforcement – including legislation on human trafficking – sex workers’ rights activists believe that criminalising the purchase of sex will drive issues of exploitation underground and further stigmatise sex workers. It’s naive to believe that criminalisation will stop people from selling sex; if the Bill is passed, sex workers will likely move into unregulated flats where they will be exposed to increased risk of violence, HIV infection and extortion from police and other third parties.

Although there are considerable difficulties in collecting reliable data about the experiences of those who work in one of the world’s most stigmatised industries, there is some evidence to support the fear that criminalisation will have negative consequences for those it claims to protect: SCOT-PEP claims there was a 95% rise in attacks on street-based sex workers in Edinburgh following Scotland’s decision to introduce penalties for kerb-crawling in 2007. Jean Urquhart MSP, Independent MSP for the Highlands and Islands region, also believes that criminalising the purchase of sex will further stigmatise sex workers, making it even more difficult for them to come forward to report crimes such as trafficking and child sexual exploitation.

The meeting at Scottish Parliament also came just days after  Norman Fowler – former Health Secretary who led the UK’s response to the emergence of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s – remarked at the 20th International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Australia, that sex work should be decriminalised in the UK to slow the spread of HIV and combat prejudice. Fowler’s new book, Don’t Die of Prejudice, documents how discrimination and stigma against sex workers, as well as HIV-positive people, drug-users and gay people, is hindering the world’s fight against AIDS.

It is for these reasons that the failure of MSPs to engage with SCOT-PEP, or any other sex workers’ rights group, raises alarm bells. At a time when arguments should be heard in equal measure, in order to ensure policies achieve their stated aim of safeguarding vulnerable individuals, one of the most important voices in the debate is being silenced.

This post was written by Lauren Wilks.

Lauren Wilks is a PhD Candidate in Sociology at the University of Edinburgh and an Editor at Routes. Her research focuses on the experiences of female migrant workers in the informal economy in Kolkata, India, and is funded by the ESRC. Previously, she was a Student Fellow with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. L.Wilks@sms.ed.ac.uk

Image Source: CC Licensed image by Mikasi, via Flickr