It was a sunny Friday afternoon on Nov 27, 2009 when I sat down on a table at San Qi, Four Seasons’ main restaurant, along with fellow World Young Leaders Forum participants for lunch. Andrey Popovich, a Russian participant living in Berlin, joined my table and seated next to me to shake my hand and introduced himself. A congenial conversation quickly ensued, and I found that he just came back from the same field trip which I was about to depart to after lunch: the field trip to Sangini Women Cooperative Society Bank.
Andrey was very excited to hear me going there, saying that he had such a wonderful experience and he wanted me to meet up with him again during dinner to hear my impressions. He wouldn’t tell me anything about Sangini – he didn’t want to spoil the surprise, he claimed, yet he assured me that the trip would be very much worthwhile.
So right after lunch my group of around 20 people hopped on the bus and departed to Kamathipura, Mumbai’s largest red light district. This is where Sangini office is located, at a small shophouse tucked in a busy corner alongside brothels, restaurants and shops selling traditional Indian clothing saris and accessories. As soon as we stepped out of the bus, we could see groups of people loitering around the area, their eyes scanning ours in an intense awe. The Sangini office is a tiny space with plastic chairs lining up on one side and two desktop computers on the desks across them. Along the walls hung a calendar, a picture of a Hindu God (I believe it’s Shiva) and Sangini’s banner. We all sat on those plastic chairs, and pretty soon the Sangini staffs had to find a few more chairs as there were simply too many of us. We squeezed every inch possible, sitting elbow to elbow, yet our enthusiasm did not wane at all. We were in fact looking forward to this fateful visit.
Sangini Women Co-operative Society Bank, or legally known as Sangini Mahila Sewa Cooperative Society is a microfinance unit for female sex workers (FSWs) in the red-light districts of Kamathipura and Falkland Road in Mumbai, India. With doorstep banking available through peer educators, the daily deposits and withdrawal services help FSWs consolidate their earnings and plan their future. The drive for Sangini stems from the desire to make a difference in the lives of the FSWs in Mumbai and to help them save their money for their children and for themselves, especially at an age when they can no longer earn a living out of sex work. A subsidiary of Sanghamitra, an NGO which was established in 1991 to provide peer education and empowerment to the FSWs (e.g., through healthcare services, condom distribution, basic literacy courses), Sangini Women Cooperative Society Bank was launched in 2007.
There are around 5,000 brothels in the area, housing approximately 200,000 FSWs. Mumbai’s prosperity has attracted the presence of a voluminous population of single male migrant workers, and created an atmosphere that is conducive to the emergence and persistence of a profitable sex trade industry. This is underscored by the fact that approximately 40% of migrant male populations in areas such as Dharavi, the largest slum in Mumbai, visit female sex workers (FSWs). This palpable presence of high-risk behavior, when compounded by the mobility of these populations, results in increased transmission and acquisition of HIV/AIDS in female rural populations, escalating the likelihood of a nationally generalized epidemic.
The FSWs are largely illiterate (the percentage is as high as 80%) and they are vulnerable to exploitations by madams, brothel owners, pimps and other stakeholders in the community. There are three classes of FSWs in this area. The lowest, most destitute class is called karza – the ladies in this group are fully indebted; they were sold into brothels by their parents, husbands or boyfriends. Then there are those who belong to the so-called “50-50” class; they operate under revenue sharing scheme with the brothels they live in. Finally the third, highest class is the independent; the ladies in this class just rent a room and pay the utilities bills to the brothel while they are free to choose their clients and set the price for each transaction. They can even reject a client who refuses to wear a condom during sex. An FSW can move to a higher class during her career span, depending on how smart she is – the smarter she is, the faster she can get out of the karza class. Some of the smartest ones even graduated to become brothel owners themselves.
Interestingly, we learned that the FSWs came from all provinces in India and from all social castes, not just the lowest one (Sudra) as virtually all of us had (incorrectly) presumed. The brothels in India are legal establishments with the minimum working age set at 18, although there have been debates that the minimum age can be stretched to as low as 16. Because they are legal, these brothels are relatively safe from police raids, except on occasions when there has been a report to the police by an NGO that a minor has been sold into a brothel.
The competition among the FSWs is pretty much driven by geographical origin rather than social caste: although the only type of sex allowed is vaginal, competition among FSWs has recently heated up because different regions in India allow different sexual practices which then sway the client preference towards certain groups of FSWs from specific regions. As this red light district is virtually a low class one – with the ladies operating at Indian Rupee (Rs) 70-8000 (USD 1.70-200) per transaction and serving only locals (no foreigners) – HIV/AIDS prevalence is very high and life expectancy is only at 50-55 years old. Once these ladies become old, most of them are forced to evict the brothels (because they can no longer generate revenues) or at best, can stay in the brothel as domestic helpers – doing house chores such as cleaning, washing, and cooking for the brothel residents.
The constant shifting in their residences within the red light districts and the absence of documents (e.g., a state or local ID) deny these FSWs access to banking and other crucial services like the Public Distribution Services that ensures food security. Having identified the urgent need for basic financial services among the FSWs, Sangini provide them a deposit scheme for daily, monthly and other savings, with doorstep banking available through peer educators in terms of deposits and withdrawals. There is no documentation required to open a bank account, and there is no minimum limit required to keep the bank account operational (cf. conventional banks in India requires a minimum balance of Rs 500 to open up a bank account). The FSWs have daily access to banking services, with a pass book system and daily updates of balances. Deposit interest rates provided are similar to the average bank rate. This basic banking service addresses the physical constraints of operating an account by steering clear of any need of literacy, experience or knowledge of banking. It also allows FSWs to negotiate through the nexus of social relationships within the household – offering freedom for financial decision making.
At the time of the opening of a bank account, a Sangini staff member takes a photograph of the female sex worker (FSW) with a webcam, and stores it in the banking software to safeguard deposits and withdrawals made by the women. Since illiteracy levels are very high, the women are not required to fill out any paperwork, as this is meticulously and justly completed by bank staff. The bank staff has been clearly instructed to be respectful of the banking privacies of each member when she utilizes any Sangini services.
At Sangini, an FSW can deposit any amount of money, even as little as Rs 1, and they don’t have to come in person to make deposits – to aid the deposit process, Sangini employs peer educators, who reside within the community and also serve as Sangini’s collection agents. These men and women in red vests walk around the area in the afternoons, visiting every nook and cranny to collect deposits from the FSWs and the return to Sangini office for safekeeping the funds in the corresponding accounts. When one of us asked whether these collection agents are prone to mugging or robbery, the answer was surprisingly simple: they are not, because they are people who practically live in the community and are therefore very familiar with the people and their surroundings. Surely the tightly-knit social fabric in the community plays an important role in preventing crimes effectively.
For withdrawals, however, the account holder must come herself. The reason for such a strict withdrawal process is that most of these FSWs have “husbands”, who are not necessarily their marital spouse, but basically men whom these ladies rely on for support. Unfortunately, however, the husbands more often than not, are jobless chaps who are also abusive drunkards or addict gamblers. As the result, these “husbands” extort money from their FSW partners and can engage in domestic violence. Limiting the withdrawal process to only the account holder is to protect the FSWs from losing their entire savings in vain. In fact, many FSWs who open up an account at Sangini leave their pass books with the bank to keep their husbands from knowing that they have savings.
Nevertheless, members still can have access to money in their daily accounts post bank hours in cases of emergency. For instance, if an FSW or her relative is hospitalized, and she needs money instantly, she can approach a peer educator, who resides within the community and also serves as a Sangini collection agent. The peer educator will inform a Sangini staff member about any urgent withdrawals, and the staff member will perform the withdrawal transaction and take the signature of the member to file in record. This is possible because Sangini has staff members who are sons and daughters of FSWs from within the community, and live nearby.
Besides basic banking facilities, Sangini provides its members with a range of loan schemes that cater to the specific financial needs of each FSW. All loans are provided up to a sum of Rs.15,000. The types of loans are:
(1) Income Generation Scheme
In order to provide FSWs with alternate income generation options, Sangini provide loans to the women for the establishment or initial infrastructural setup of small businesses, such as costume jewelry-making, tailoring, and the selling of groceries and vegetables. This scheme has a reducing rate of interest.
(2) Karza Mukti (Freedom from Bonded Labor) Scheme
Currently, FSWs have to pay exorbitantly high rates of interest, on the debt incurred when they are indentured to their brothel -owners, in addition to the principal amount. Under this scheme, members can take a low-interest loan from Sangini to repay the debt and achieve emancipation from bonded labor.
(3) Special Purpose Scheme
Sangini provides its members with loans for special purposes related to building a future for themselves as well as for their children. These loans could be for financing tuition fees or weddings of their children, and for building houses in their villages. This scheme has a reducing rate of interest.
Since issuing its first loan on January 31, 2008, Sangini has issued over 200 loans for a total of Rs.20,00,000.
In addition to banking and micro loan facilities, recently Sangini has also offered insurance policies to its members. There are two types of insurance currently available:
(1) Life Insurance for the sex workers: Sangini provides life insurance policies for its members and their spouses through the Life Insurance Corporation of India under the “Jeevan Madhur” scheme. “Jeevan Madhur”, is available to the women without any medical examination and is a simple, saving-related life insurance plan covering individuals in the age group of 18 to 60 years. The minimum sum assured under the plan is Rs. 5000 while the maximum is Rs. 30000. The mode of premium payment can be weekly or fortnightly in addition to other regular modes to suit the needs of people with low income. The minimum premium is Rs. 25/- per week, Rs. 50/- per fortnight, Rs. 100/- per month, and Rs. 250/- per year which is expected to be well within the reach of the women. The term of policy ranges between 5 to 15 years.
(2) Accidental Insurance facility for the Sex Workers: Sangini provides accident insurance for its members and their spouses through the HDFC ERGO General Insurance Co. Ltd. This policy is available for micro finance institutions and their non-governmental organizational members between the ages of 18 and 60. Personal accident benefits are at a minimum of Rs.25000 and a maximum of Rs.100,000. With payment of an additional premium, Sangini members can insure their spouses for up to 50% of or equal to their capital sums insured by the policy. Currently, Sangini is in the process of establishing a mechanism through which its members can access mediclaim at subsidized rates.
Through Sangini, FSWs in Mumbai have been able to use banking and financial services that were denied to them. And through Sangini they are also able to free themselves from cycles of debts taken from loan sharks at exorbitant interest rates. They are able to access services without fear, stigma or discrimination. And most importantly, they are able to unite in their efforts to ensure security for their families towards a future devoid of exploitation and vulnerability.
During that one-hour talk at the Sangini office, we met the social workers, the clerical staffs, the ladies from Sanghamitra, the collection agents and some of the FSWs. Much to our surprise, the FSWs were virtually indistinguishable from ordinary people. Unlike their counterparts in other parts of the globe who tend to wear sexy (or even raunchy) outfits, these ladies don the traditional saris complemented with somewhat generous number of gold jewelries (earrings, rings, nose rings, and necklaces). Since the only person who can speak English among them was the social worker, she then had to translate back and forth between English and Hindi in order for everyone to comprehend what each had said.
I must admit that I felt uneasy in the beginning when the social worker was explaining about Sangini and the FSWs – not that I condemn the FSWs or the prostitution itself, but I was deeply disturbed by the “tragedy” that befell on these ladies. I could not imagine the trials and tribulations, the humiliations, the prejudice and the discrimination that they must endure throughout most of their lifetime. And sadly, many of these ladies do not do the job out of their volition; many of them were in fact victims of human trafficking. Unsurprisingly, I sensed similar uneasiness on the faces of my fellow group members – and I mean all men and women – as we all listened very attentively to the social worker. I could clearly see the distraught facial expressions: some were rolling their eyes in utter disbelief, some were nervously biting their lips, some tried to hide their dismay by continuously taking notes, while some grappled not to shed tears. It was apparent that we were uncomfortable not only because we felt a deep sympathy and compassion for these ladies, but also because we were wary of exhibiting even the slightest signs of disrespect or unkindness towards them. We were worried that our questions, albeit driven out of pure curiosity, would be considered offensive and inconsiderate. Yet the enthusiasm from all the parties broke the ice very quickly and towards the end of the meeting (when all of our questions have been answered satisfactorily), it was the ladies’ turn to ask us to introduce ourselves one by one! To me it was a gesture that they did not consider our presence as a threat, but rather a welcomed, much anticipated visit by a group of new, global friends. As each of us said our name, country of origin and profession, I could see their eyes lit up and their mouths chattered in joyful astonishment. It was quite amusing to note the confused look on their faces as they met two Indonesians at that time: my friend Wisnu and me. I happened to introduce myself first and I bet they thought that Indonesians look Oriental, only to get bewildered as soon as their eyes met the dark complexion, almost Indian-like Wisnu :p
All in all, the field trip to Sangini was a sobering experience for me. It taught me valuable lessons on human strength and perseverance, and it also served as a constant reminder for me not to take anything for granted. Compared to the lives of these FSWs, I am living a princess’ life, and I should be grateful for that. Too often I behave like a spoiled daddy’s girl and I got caught up in counting my sufferings instead of my blessings. My new year’s resolution for 2010 has certainly got to be one of counting more and more blessings (and I know there are plenty abound in my life still…) while spreading more good deeds towards my society.
During the dinner party that night at Indigo, Andrey purposely looked for me and the minute he found me he raised his two thumbs up, asking for my confirmation about the Sangini trip. I promptly nodded and followed his hand gesture, then we compared notes about the trip. Aside from all the nitty gritty details that we share with each other, Andrey and I agree that what Sangini does may not change the world much, but it certainly makes difference in their members’ lives, one lady at a time :)
- Mumbai – home to a vast population of approximately 18 million people, teems with a diverse range of ethnicities, socioeconomic classes, sexual predilections, consumer preferences, disposable incomes and levels of education. There is a palpable dichotomy in the standards of living of the rich and the poor. On one hand, 60% of people in Mumbai live in slum areas and 27% live below the poverty line. On the other hand, Mumbai is one of the richest cities in India. It is the epicenter of foreign trade (40% of foreign trade in India happens here), and is responsible for 33% of the income tax in India.
- For more info or if you’d like to contribute, go to http://www.sanginimicrofinance.com/aboutus.html.
- BBC had run a coverage on Sangini. You can read the report in http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/7284180.stm.
- My undergraduate alma matter PENN, through its School of Social Policy and Practice has been doing a similar project in Kolkatta. For more details please check http://www.upenn.edu/gazette/0511/gaz02.html