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Usha: A New Beginning for Sex Workers

A co-operative bank run for and by sex workers is changing lives across West Bengal.

Putul Singh is a former sex worker who knows well the uphill struggle women face trying to break the poverty trap when they are in this profession. “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,” she says. To solve the issue, thirteen sex workers came together 22 years ago, pooling their savings and creating Usha: a co-operative bank. From its humble beginnings in a small corner of Kolkata’s Sonagachhi, the largest red light district in India and Asia, today Usha helps over 30,000 sex workers. Recently it has also opened up its services for marginalised women in other professions as well as working class men.

Usha is a success story like no other. Sex workers operate in an exclusively cash based economy. Usha’s scheme allowing members to save as little as five rupees daily has brought sea change in the lives of sex workers across West Bengal. Shanti* has been able to build a house, educate her children, take care of her and her elderly father’s health thanks to her savings in and loans from Usha. “Before Usha, we would hardly ever have any money. And once you have money, you are more confident, you have a voice. So it’s a huge transformation for us,” she says. This story is echoed by each and every member interviewed by Community Correspondent Rebeka Parvin.

But it has not always been so smooth sailing. At its inception, many sex workers and even Dr Sarojit Jana, Chief Advisor to the bank faced a lot of hostility, even violent threats from the local money lenders. Further impediments came from the State Co-operative Department had initially refused to register the bank because of a clause regarding members having ‘good moral character’. Of course, the Department not only registered the bank, but in a testament to the success of Usha, awarded it the best multipurpose co-operative society award in 2015-16.

Sex workers across the world have documented how financial institutions discriminate against them. Usha has taken the stigma head on and is today a force to be reckoned with as a successful financial institution, not just for, but also run by sex workers. While Usha is admitting more and more new members and plans to spread across the country, its elected board is comprised of sex workers. Run under the aegis of Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, an organisation of over 60,000 sex workers in west Bengal, Usha has even weathered the chaos of demonetisation. In Bengali, Usha means dawn and this bank has truly lived up to its name and ushered in a new dawn in the lives of many women and their families.

Article by Madhura Chakraborty

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