Collectivisation of Women in Sex Work

By – Aditya Bastola

The document intends to draw some of the theoretical discussion on collectivisation of women in sex work through a historical perspective that have lead the women to mobilise for a collective action while living in brothels. It also intends to highlight the pioneers of women’s movement which have motivated other women in sex work across India for collectivisation due to a popular believe for prevention of HIV/AIDS and meeting health and social needs associated with the malady. The process of collectivisation is mainly reflected on Sonagachi Project and Saheli HIV/AIDS Karyakarta Sangh in Kolkata and Pune respectively.

Community Organisation a way forward for Collectivisation

According to Nag (2005), Collectivisation of women in sex work across India has been on the grounds of HIV/AIDS project strategies which relied on Peer Education System.

ALTHOUGH project implemented for prevention of HIV/AIDS, the primary strategy has been to mobilise women in sex work for collective action, it is vital to understand how one relates to such a locality especially red light areas sited in almost all cities across India.

Prior we reflect to locations of sex workers living in red light areas, one requires augmenting the perception of communities and their process of mobilisation. It is often believed communities are described as certain social realities of human life such as; a) small geographical unit, local unit with many areas of common life, b) an association [formal/informal] of people with common like, but do not reside at the same neighbourhood, c) localised large unit but little common like throughout a process of interaction and mutual dependency.

Understanding the complexities where rural villages or unit may fit in the above mentioned categorisation, in the Indian context, classification possibly will not always suit, as such communities may at times consist of small groups which have a caste/religion base and very rarely homogenise except for tribal hamlets. It is this conceptualisation which supports to identify communities with locality and thus constrain the concept where we tend to omit communities which provide certain functions to the society.

In this conceptuality process, when we try to analyse the situation that persist in an urban setting, all neighbourhood is perceived as little communities as rightly discussed by Robert Redfield where the characteristics are distinctive small size, homogeneity of the in habitats and specific physical geographical and psychological boundaries but such discussion have certain limitations which tend to exclude the similar interest and mutual dependency and primarily broadening the horizon of boundaries. In fact at such level when geographical limits are not ascribed criteria, the exclusive population tends to congregate into the framework of functional community.

In the case of red light areas sited across Indian cities, there are women belonging from different caste, religion, culture, and region, who have been mostly forced to live in a brothel and perform sex work as their source of livelihood and significantly perceived as fate from various walks of life. Without ignoring the fact, they perform a certain role, fulfilling the sexual urges of men. As one cannot disregard, the society being driven by patriarchal norms, where men have an active role and decides what is wrong and good whereas the women are perceived as passive and follow the thinking of men. Such discriminative inhibition and foremost the stigma attached towards sex work often ignore the existence of sex workers as a community within a community.

As the first HIV/AIDS incidence was identified in 1986, Chennai, then there was a growing concern amongst the social think-tanks to address a preventive measure before the disease was widespread and affected the economy of the country. They targeted women in sex work as a mean which could prevent the spread of the disease and established a working model based on Peer Education, who could educate other women in sex work for prevention of HIV/AIDS infection. The initiative undertaken by the government recognised sex workers as a unit of community and first launched the community lead target intervention programme at Sonagachi, Kolkata also known by Sonagachi Project.

Awakening to the concern, various government and non-government organisation extended their work related to HIV/AIDS awareness generation amongst the women in sex work across India. In this process, the agents recognised the sex workers as a community. They diagnosed the problem on the broader framework of community based on geographical boundaries. As a result a need for community organisation was felt amongst these external agents. They trained women in sex work who could impart knowledge and information to other women regarding to HIV/AIDS at the brothel level. They were coined and strategized under the banner of Peer Education System. A ‘multiple approach’ was adopted, where experts designed a variety of services such as provision of medical services through referrals to government and non-government clinics and hospitals, treating sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and other general health facilities.

In this process, it reflects a community discontent was created by the external agents who in turn mobilised its members for organisation and developing an association to address the issue at the larger level. The discontent was created through door-to-door visits by the Peers Educators at the brothel level, awareness generation about general health etc.

As rightly argued by Ross (1955), Community the process of bringing about and maintaining a progressively more effective adjustment between social welfare resources and social welfare needs within a geographical area of functional field. The organisation of women in sex work have brought about a realisation towards the community discontent which was focused on the health aspect and channelled into an organisation (Peer Education System) and shared widely in the community for its sustainability.

Amongst some external agents, their process of organising the women in sex work lead to collectivise the community members as a forum of women in sex work. This experience could be shared through the initiative of Sonagachi Project by the Government of India which lead to establishment of ‘Darbur Mahila Samanwaya Committee’ (DMSC popularly known as Darbur), Kolkatta and similarly Saheli HIV/AIDS Karyakarta Sangh by People’s Health Organisation (earlier known by Indian Health Organisation) in Pune, Maharashtra.


1. Kampala Kempadoo and Jo Doezema, Global Sex Workers: Right, Resistance and Redefinition, New York, 1998
2. Murray G.Ross & B.W.Lappin,1955, Community Organisation: Theory, Principles and Practice, Harper & Row Publishers, New York.
3. (accessed on 10/03/2008)
4. (accessed on 10/3/2008)
5. (accessed on 15/03/2008)
6. (accessed on 15/03/2008)


adityabastola said…
Thank you Mr. Ajith Chelote,

It's a pleasure for having commented on the work we do.
I will certainly follow your blog.

Best wishes,


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