Funding crunch shuts Sangini, which gave hope to Mumbai’s sex workers

Started in 2007, in India’s second-largest red-light area, the cooperative’s margins were too low to be sustainable

Updated - June 01, 2018 11:13 am IST

Published - December 31, 2017 11:43 pm IST

Mumbai: Fatima collects ₹20 from men to rent a cubicle in her brothel in Kamathipura, where women charge them up to ₹200 for sex. Until last month, she asked the women to count their money every few days and put it in a bank a couple of streets away. But when the Sangini Mahila Seva Co-operative Society Ltd shut last month, in a funding crunch, after 10 years of being run for sex workers, all their savings were returned, but now they have no other place to keep their money safe.

“Now they are hiding the money somewhere in the cubicle, or are stitching it up in their pillow covers,” Fatima, who gave only her first name, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “I used to ask the girls to save money to send it home. They come from all parts of the country. Their families are poor.” She hoped Sangini would re-open if funds for administration were found.

Escape route

Sangini was modelled on the country’s oldest bank for sex workers, Usha Cooperative in Sonagachi, Kolkata’s red-light district, and was the first such in India’s second largest red-light district, in Mumbai. The cooperative offered fuss-free banking services to sex workers, never asking for any paperwork or proof of identity, just a photo. It collected cash deposits — as low as ₹5 — from their doorsteps, even welcoming homeless girls to open savings accounts.

“When we started, we were afraid if brothel madams and pimps will allow it to function,” said Shilpa Merchant, former national coordinator of the U.S.-based non-profit Population Services International, which initially funded the project. “So we aimed at opening 100 accounts in the first year. But we opened more than 100 accounts on the bank’s opening day itself.” That number had increased to 5,000 when the bank closed. Ms. Merchant says, “Some sex workers could get their children married; some left the profession and started a shop. We documented all this. The bank was giving them alternative options of livelihood.”

Anusaya, who only have her first name, said she was born into the devadasi system, which ‘dedicates’ girls to a life of sex work in the name of religion, and she was one of the first to open an account at Sangini with ₹1,000. “Then I started saving regularly.” She was one of several sex workers who volunteered with the bank to become collection agents, visiting brothels to collect money and handing over receipts. “I could buy a small room for myself a few years ago. I live there on my own now.”

Low margins

Sangini had had rough patches before, first when PSI withdrew funding in 2009, trustees of the bank said. It then got funding support from India800 Foundation, a trust set up try to help the 800 million Indians living on less than $2 a day ($1 = ₹63.85). India800 too suffered a fund crunch three years later, which affected its India operations as well, trustees said.

“We gave 3% interest to account holders on their deposits,” said Narayan Hegde, trustee of Sangini and chairman of India800. “We in turn deposited all the money into another nationalised bank that gave us 5% interest. To run the bank on the 2% margin was becoming unsustainable. We had a liability of ₹40 lakh when we closed. We had no support. The minute we said ‘sex workers,’ nobody was interested [in funding the bank]. Even now I am hopeful that if we get ₹10 lakh, we can run the bank.”

Savita Tadke, who worked at Sangini, said she is regularly stopped by sex workers and asked when the bank will re-open. “The women here don't have space,” she said. “Their money, and at times their clothes, are stolen by pimps and customers.”

“This bank brought us together,” said Maya Lama, a board member of Sangini and a representative of sex workers in Kamathipura. “Our collection agents had access to brothels. We were able to rescue many young girls from brothels in the last few years. We have the strength to run the bank even now. We just don't have the money.”

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