Usha: The Story Of A Life-Changing Bank Run For And By The Sex Workers

Photo: Partha Paul/The Indian Express

Prostitution is not a choice and maybe we should reconsider the statement that we always have a choice. Thousands of girls and women from across the country resort to prostitution to earn a living and keep their families alive, who are very very poor. What women would like a strange man in her bed every day only to get paid for it?

The women who work as sex workers in various red light areas of India, earn in a few hundred for every client. Since prostitution is not legal in India, the women are not protected and so is the money that they earn. What do they do?

They came up with an idea. They started a bank more than two decades ago.

Usha Multipurpose Cooperative Society bank is the country’s oldest bank for sex workers which also run by sex workers. It is located in Kolkata’s Sonagachi area – Sonagachi being India’s largest red light district with over 11,000 sex workers in it.

Usha’s website reads, “The sex workers working in Sonagachi did not have access to facilities to save money. They could not open bank accounts without identification and residence proof – documents that their illegal occupation did not allow them to possess. Sex workers also faced humiliation when banks insisted that they bring their ‘husbands’ along. Most sex workers kept their earnings with madams or pimps, who often duped or cheated them. Sex workers were also robbed of money by local goondas or extortions by police.

A customer withdrawing money from Usha bank | Photo: Subham Dutta/ The Indian Express

As a result, most sex workers chose not to save and spent the day’s income that day itself.  In the absence of savings, sex workers were forced to borrow money to meet unforeseen expenses resulting from illness, marriage or death in the family. Women had to take loans from local money lenders at interest rates as high as 300% or approach chit funds with unfair lending deals. Consequently, sex workers found themselves in deep economic debt and were compelled to engage in risky and unsafe work. Economic desperation exposed sex workers to severe vulnerability and exploitation. “

On June 21, 1995, the bank was set up with the sole purpose of assisting the financial needs of the sex workers on Sonagachi.  It is run by a board of 9 sex workers who are elected through a two-tier election system and hold office for 3 years.

At the time of its establishment it had ₹30,000 as capital and now the turnover is over ₹30 crores.  It now operates in almost all districts of West Bengal.

Photo: ushacoop.org

According to the Indian Express, the bank has helped a woman through loans. This woman was able to marry off her three sisters and repair her house. Another woman was able to buy a house, a car to work as an Ola cab and help her son run a grocery shop through the loans she could take from this bank. The bank impacts the lives of over 30 thousand people.

The bank also provides condoms and sanitary napkins at a lower rate to the sex workers.

Usha Multipurpose co-operative society limited’s head office at 12/5 Nilmoni Mitra Street popularly known as Sonagachi | Photo: Partha Paul/The Indian Express

While Usha is a success story, another bank in Mumbai that was started for sex workers had to shut down due to a funding crunch. ‘Sangini Women’s Co-operative Society bank shut last month amid financial woes after 10 years of being run for sex workers largely by sex worker volunteers, all their savings were returned’, according to Reuters. How many banks might have been shut and shot down hopes of scores of sex workers?

This story is a shade of life from a part of the world we don’t know about. Don’t forget to share it and let more people know about a life that thousands of women live every day.

Preview Photo: Partha Paul/The Indian Express

Heer Khant
Heer Khant

Traveller | Writer | Photographer | Maverick | Social Worker | Lawyer | A freedom-loving woman for whom words are like wings to her soul. She believes in aliens, hates boundaries and lives like the first human on Earth.

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