Sonagachi in Kolkata is known to be Asia’s largest red light area — it is often said that the area is a world in itself. More than 11,000 sex workers inhabit it. For the longest time, these sex-workers had no access to banks and the services provided there. In some cases where they managed to gain access, they were shunned away because of the work they did.
For sex workers in India, economic exclusion from government and other formal financial institutions is both a cause and an effect of their occupation. Sex workers usually come from economically marginalised communities where they are often denied the education or skills required to secure employment in the formal sector.
More than two decades ago, 13 sex workers came together pooling their savings to establish Usha, a co-operative aimed at providing financial assistance to sex-workers.
Usha is the country’s oldest ‘bank’, which is run by and for female sex workers – an achievement in itself.
Established on June 21, 1995, the bank only had ₹ 30,000 as working capital. Now the turnover stands at nearly ₹ 30 crores, and now, this bank is all set to expand its operations. Over the years the co-operative has done very well, and they have now opened its services for marginalised women in other professions as well as working-class men.
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Putul Singh, a former sex worker and one of the women who ensured that this co-operative sees the light of the day, says,“Landlords don’t want to give rental contracts, bank employees turn them away. The only option for loans is to go to the local moneylenders whose high-interest rates mean a lifetime of debt. The only way sex workers can save is to keep money with the brothel madam who often is dishonest in her dealings,” as reported by The Logical Indian.
Stories from sex-workers on how much this co-operative has helped them and their families are heartwarming. Sharing her story, a 36-year-old who has been a sex worker since she was 15, speaks about being able to marry off her three sisters and repair her house. The bank has loaned her money five times, the last one was an amount of ₹70,000, which she is currently paying back in instalments, as reported in The Indian Express.
You will be surprised to read that in 2016-2017, the bank gave out ₹ 7.62 crores in loans to 7,231 sex workers, most of it for children’s education and housing.
The bank survived demonetisation and even competition from private and nationalised banks.
Shefali Das, the chairperson of Usha, says, “We meet twice a month where we sanction loans, deliberate on ways to raise collections, recovery of sticky loans and fluctuation of interest rates,” as reported by The Hindustan Times.
The bank has three branches at Kalighat, Sonagachi and Dinhata (Cooch Behar district). It has a network of 16 collection centres in red lights areas of the state where 28 agents, all children of sex workers, collect deposits every day.
Here’s wishing such initiatives more power and success.
Cover photo: Flickr