Remember ME - You Me and Dementia

Friday, March 14, 2008

Mumbai bank helps sex workers save money

Sita has been staying for over 30 years in Mumbai's red-light district of Kamathipura, resigned not only to her own fate but that of her daughter's too.

"But," she says, "if I can do something for my grandchild, maybe it's still worth it."

That something is an account with Sangini Women's Co-operative Bank.

"My income has fallen," Sita says. Now in her forties, she says she does not earn as much as she could when she was younger.

"But earlier there was no way to save money. Even if you gave it for safekeeping to a shopkeeper or brothel manager, they would never return it."

Sita, one of Mumbai's 6,000-odd sex workers, says she earns about 100 rupees ($2.5) a day and diligently puts just under a third of that in the bank.

A big hit

Tucked away in a busy corner of Kamathipura, among brothels, restaurants and shops selling sarees and accessories, the tiny Sangini bank manages more than 1700 accounts.

Since last month, it has even started granting loans of up to 15,000 rupees ($370).

With its collection workers going from door to door to collect the cash, the bank is a hit with the sex workers of Kamathipura.

The total amount of money deposited at the bank, including at its newly-opened branches of Vashi and Bhiwandi, is well over 2m rupees ($49,000). With no minimum deposit clause, one can put as little as 10 rupees ($0.25) in the bank.

Sangini is India's second such effort at providing financial security for sex workers - sex workers in the eastern city of Calcutta took the lead in setting up a cooperative bank in 1994, and today the Usha Multipurpose Co-operative Society is flourishing in the state.

Habit of debt

Dr Shilpa Merchant, state director of US-based international charity, Population Services International, said the idea for Sangini was formed over the course of several years.

"When we were working on HIV prevention in the area we realised that there is no way for these women to save money.

"They have no documents but have huge debts. They have been taking money from a local money lender who charges them very high interest."

The women's exposure to loans typically begins as they embark on prostitution - when, at the age of 16 or 17, their bodies are sold in brothels.

The brothel owner typically tells the girl she must sell sex to repay a "loan" which has been given to her family.

The loan may be repayed over four or five years, by which time the woman has no option but to continue working as a prostitute. So she stays on, getting a slightly better deal from the brothel owner - but often accumulating other debts with local money lenders.

These loans may be taken for a range of reasons - to pay for medical expenses, to support families back home, to travel to their hometowns and to pay for children's education.

Being at the bottom of the economic chain in her profession, a sex worker had little chance of making good choices in areas such as health care.

High trust

As she went about her work trying to prevent the spread of HIV, Dr Merchant felt very little would change for the women unless they had some monetary buffer.

"A sex worker will be able to say 'no' to a client who does not want to use a condom - if she has some extra money," Dr Merchant says. "Our effort is to make them less helpless and vulnerable."

In the absence of any other option, the idea emerged of a bank to cater for the sex workers.

As many of the sex workers were already involved in a collective, it was easy to process their accounts and give them photo identity cards.

All a sex worker needs to open an account is membership of the collective and some money. Her picture is taken at the bank and an account book delivered to her room.

A man called Jiwan Saha and his brother, Prem Prakash Saha, worked out how the bank would survive financially.

Jiwan built a revenue model which would ensure the bank broke even as soon as 1390 accounts had been operational for 300 days, with a 20 rupee ($0.5) deposit per day.

Other revenue options such as a grocery store and travel agency bring viability to the venture.

The bank offers interest rates comparable to the national banks.

Prem, who looks after the bank with help of a retired bank manager, says of the customers: "Sometimes they are so ignorant that they just come and give lot of money and go away."

"They do not understand the interest rates, savings, but the trust factor is very high.

"We try to inculcate a habit of understanding finances. Their lives have been so hard that sometimes you don't know what to say."

Striving for respectability

Then there are people like Akkatai, a collection agent, who knows exactly what to say to the reluctant members.

Having been through similar life, Akkatai looks after over 100 accounts in a designated area.

Apart from being an alert collection agent, she also plays the role of friend, philosopher and guide.

"Sometimes I console them, sometimes scold them. What to do now? If they save, at least their children will have a better life."

Sameera, who has come to withdraw 200 rupees from 250-rupee savings, asks me if I want to know her real age and real name. She has recently turned 21 and is also a sex worker. She wants to save for her three-year-old son, who is with her parents.

"I was married off early, my husband died and now I am in this line," she says.

"I am just trying to save some money so that my son grows up well and I can afford to leave this place. Even if I can't change my profession now, at least I want to live in a different area.

"Why should anyone in a residential area have a problem with me if I do not trouble them?"

There are many like Sita who have accepted their fate and there are as many like Sameera who still want to assimilate and be accepted.

Sangini, meaning friend, is providing support to both.

BY Prachi Pinglay


Forget yourself for others, and others will never forget you.

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