Sex Workers can Now Save Using "Sangini" Service

by Rajshri on  June 16, 2008 at 1:55 PM Indian Health News
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The demands of Mumbai prostitutes to have their own bank so they could accumulate some savings appears to have borne fruit.
 Sex Workers can Now Save Using
Sex Workers can Now Save Using "Sangini" Service

Armed with deposit envelopes and a pen, Akkatai doesn't even cast a passing glance at the men looking for sex in the red light district of India's financial capital.

She has her mind focused on another more important task -- collecting bank deposits from the prostitutes who rush up to press rupee notes into her hand.

Akkatai takes the money, scribbles in deposit books the women carry, and continues towards the first of 294 bedrooms she visits daily in Kamathipura, the oldest prostitutes' haunt in the sprawling city of 18 million people.

"Some of the women stay up all night. They tell me it's good we come to get the money because they can't deposit it during the day," said Akkatai, a collector for Sangini or "Friend," a banking service set up for prostitutes

Exploited for years by moneylenders and pimps, prostitutes in Asia's largest brothel district had long demanded a bank so they could safely access their earnings.

Their wish was granted by Population Services International (PSI), a Washington-based nonprofit group which set up the Sangini project last July.

"If we get unwell, men don't want to come to us. If we have a little money in the bank, we can use those 10-20 rupees (25-50 cents) when we get sick," said Maya, a prostitute who heads a community rights group.

The collected money is pooled into a single interest-bearing account at the State Bank of India. The account is in the name of the Sangini cooperative, which manages the women's individual accounts. Sangini, like a bank, keeps cash on hand and facilitates deposits and withdrawals into that account.

More than 2,500 women, many of whom have no papers and would not be allowed to open normal bank accounts, have so far deposited 160,000 dollars with Sangini.

"Some women said this was the first time they felt they owned their money," said Jiwan Prakash Saha, PSI's finance manager.

In February, Sangini also began issuing one-year loans of up to 15,000 rupees (350 dollars).

Diane Cross, PSI programme manager, said that one woman had used a loan to renovate her crumbling brothel, while another had helped her son open a DVD and mobile phone shop.

The bank has also expanded to two other red-light districts, hoping to reach more of the 100,000-plus women and girls estimated by several non-government organisations and the US State Department to be working in Mumbai's brothels.

"Before I'd save money with someone and they would deny having it or they would run away with it," said Simla, a prostitute from Nepal.

Prostitution is illegal in socially conservative India, making it difficult for sex workers to rely on authorities for help. But things are slowly changing, and in recent years prostitutes have been more vocal in their demands for legal rights, licensing, and reemployment training.

Still, most prostitutes lack identity cards or even minimum balances needed to open commercial bank accounts and rely on people such as shopkeepers to hold their money for them -- often at the risk of losing it.

Sangini is the harbinger of the changes that are now making life a little easier, and certainly more normal, for Mumbai's prostitutes.

Thanks to the group's initiative, Simla can walk into Sangini's small office without any papers, as staff use a webcam photo stored with her file to identify her, and manage her own money.

"It's made my life easy. The bank is nearby and we can come whenever we want," she said.

Simla said she is saving money for her seven-year-old son, and for her daughter, 5, whom she has sent to a boarding school to shelter her from the area's lifestyle.

"My life's been wasted but I save money so my children can study a little and do something with their lives," Simla said.

In Kamathipura, prostitutes earn about 70 rupees (1.80 dollars) per client. Some of the money goes to paying for the bed they use, which can be rented daily for 100 rupees or per client for 10 rupees.

"The smart ones count. They count what they owe and make sure they pay off their loans. They're the ones who are able to get out or make more money for themselves," said Cross, the programme manager.

Savings can also help smooth the transition to middle age when many women see a drop in clients. Those who have the funds return to their villages to purchase land or buy apartments they can rent out to others.

For women like Simla, who has not saved enough to do either, there are odd jobs such as cleaning and cooking in the brothels.

For now, she relies on one or two clients a day to pay for food and save a bit.

"I just hope for something different for my children," she said.

Source: AFP

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