"Making education safe for all" in Sonagachi, India


Sex workers in Sonagachi, West Bengal, in India have taken a number of initiatives to improve education of sex workers and sex workers’ children. They include adult literacy and numeracy classes for sex workers, primary schools for young children of sex workers, a boarding hostel with private tuition for older children, and a co-operative banking system.  In the early 1990s many sex workers in Sonagachi had not completed formal education as children. Stigma, discrimination and violence from society posed a barrier to accessing adult education services, and prevented children of sex workers from attending or continuing education from primary level onwards.The education initiatives in Sonagachi began in 1992 when sex workers first began organising and recruiting peer educators. They quickly found that many of the peer educators could not read or write, so they started a literacy program. This was the first sex worker led informal education initiative in the area.As sex workers improved their literacy and education, they soon asked "Why not our children too?" So they started a primary school for young children up to level three. After level three the children were able to join mainstream formal education schools.Sex workers extended this initiative in 1998 by opening a hostel outside the red light district area for children of sex workers to live full-time, while attending mainstream schools.The hostel provided private tuition to help the students stay on track at school. It also provided computer training; singing, dance and musical classes; and sports – especially football and volleyball. The football team of sex workers’ children has been very successful and have played in tournaments across India and in other countries in Europe and India. Recently they went to play in Denmark.Every year over 30 pupils from the hostel and the Sonagachi area graduate with high school certificates. The hostel even lets students stay on after graduating high school. Recently one student graduated with a degree in Engineering from university before moving out to take up a new job.DMSC  has a ‘cultural wing’ called ‘KomalGandhar’ in which sex workers' children are involved and achieved great successes performing across India and also in Bangladesh and Nepal. They performed in Geneva, and came first among 20 cultural programs from around the world.The hostel and primary schools are both managed by joint sex worker and non-sex worker committees. Most of the teachers are non-sex workers, but they are friendly and respectful to the children and there are no problems of stigma and discrimination. Some of the teachers are children of sex workers who were previously students in the schools.

Successes and achievements

A key objective of the education initiatives is to enable children of sex workers to be equal with other students and the rest of society. According to Bharati Dey of Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee:

We have more or less succeeded in that area, our children are competing with other children of non sex workers. They are going out and getting jobs alongside other people and joining society as equals.

The children of sex workers have also setup their own organisation called “AmraPadatik” which means "We are foot soldiers." They talk about stigma and discrimination and fight for the rights of their mothers.Another educational initiative from the sex workers of Sonagachi is the USHA co-operative bank. Starting with 13 people in 1995, the bank now has over 30,000 members and an annual turnover exceeding (27 crore). As well as teaching basic literacy and numeracy skills to enable sex workers to participate, the bank provides access to credit and loans to start a business or purchase a house or flat. These are vital financial services for sex workers who are getting older and one day may not be able to earn money through sex work. 

Challenges and setback

The achievements of Sonagachi sex workers did not happen overnight, said Bharati Dey:

“It took 25 years of hard work. And in that time we faced many challenges, we went to jail, we faced physical violence, and mental violence.”

The hostel initiative in particular faced many challenges and setbacks, including violence. Some people in society said sex workers had no right to education, and if the children of sex workers became educated they too would fight for their rights and ‘disrupt the social structure.’When the hostel was first set up in 1996 the hostel had only one caretaker/teacher. But within one year the caretaker was shot and killed. Sex workers spent two years fighting for justice for this case and eventually the murderer was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison.Sex workers were successful in getting the support of local government in standing up to the negative views of society and were able to fully open the hostel in 1998.

The future

Despite these challenges, Bharati says:

We are only going forwards not back! But this takes work. It needs the work of sex workers all around the world. It is hard work fighting for the rights of sex workers, and for the recognition that sex work is. But we all must work together to achieve these rights. This needs sex workers from all over the world, not only Indian sex workers, not just other countries, all of us must be united and must fight for the rights of sex workers together. But then, it is possible!

 Logo for Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee(This article is based on an interview with Bharati Dey of Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee or DMSC - "the unstoppable women's committee." It is part of a series in collaboration with Unzip the Lips highlighting barriers to education for many marginalised women and girls and how to overcome these barriers. The series marks this year's 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence.)