MUMBAI, India – Dressed in a black, cotton nightgown, her lips painted a dark pink, 28-year-old Uzma* leans against a streetlamp in Mumbai’s Kamathipura, Asia’s second-largest red light district. The sex worker’s target for the day is six clients, which will make her 1,500 rupees ($23). The amount will cover her day’s basic expenses: daily rent to the owner of the brothel she works in and her food. The rest she will sew into a blouse she doesn’t use and hide it away in her trunk.
“Money needs to be hidden,” Uzma says. “In the past, clients have beaten me up after they learned I was hoarding cash, took the money and fled. Even my boyfriend tends to get violent and takes off with the money.”
It is only recently that Uzma has had to resort to hiding her money. Until a few months ago, every time she had a client, she would walk to the Sangini Cooperative Bank nearby and deposit her earnings into her account. Sangini bank, which got its name from the Hindi word for “friend” or “companion,” catered specifically to sex workers, offering them access to financial services when most conventional banks would turn them away.
But Sangini struggled to make money and was forced to close in November 2017. Now Uzma and 5,000 other sex workers in Kamathipura who used the bank are left with no place to store their “dirty” money.
“Most of these women were sold into sexual slavery by their relatives or pimps,” says Maya Lama, 57, an activist working with sex workers in Kamathipura.
“They do not have birth certificates, school leaving certificates or proof of residence – documents that are required to open bank accounts in India. Worse, regular banks have asked us to keep sex workers away since other customers protest against banking with them.”
Sangini, which launched in Mumbai in 2007, was only the second bank of its kind in the country, following a similar initiative in Kolkata. The bank let sex workers open accounts with no minimum deposit requirement and offered savings accounts to homeless girls. It had a small staff of 10 volunteers, also sex workers in Kamathipura, and three or four collection agents, who would visit brothels to pick up deposits from account holders.
“Collection agents made all the difference,” says Shilpa Merchant, former national coordinator of the Washington D.C.-based NGO Population Services International, which initially funded Sangini.
Many sex workers are not allowed to leave their brothels until they have paid back the amount their madams spent on “purchasing” them, a goal made almost impossible as madams add rent, food and electricity bills to what the women owe. “The numbers keep spiralling. It’s years before the women are able to repay the amount and leave the brothels,” Merchant says. “With no access to the outside world, collection agents became saviors for the women.”
‘More Than a Bank’
When Sangini first opened, Merchant says they hoped to have at least 150 accounts registered during the first year. By the end of the first day, they had already registered more than 100.
“It was more than a bank,” says Mumzura Bibi, 40, a commercial sex worker who had an account with Sangini for eight years.
“There were instances when women would get arrested for illegal soliciting, and bank employees would withdraw money from their accounts, bail them out. They’d even come to hospitals to deliver money whenever a woman was in need. They also counseled us in money management [and] issues pertaining to our sexual health.”
Riziya Thakur, 35, was trafficked to Kamathipura from Kolkata nine years ago. With the money she saved in her Sangini account, she bought a house and a few acres of farmland for herself and her three children.
“The bank let me save my money, and secure my children’s future,” she says. “Now, with nowhere to keep the money, I pay daily installments to a moneylender. And the rest I end up spending as it comes.”
Anjali Desai, who worked as Sangini’s bank manager from 2012 until the bank closed, says most sex workers are in debt, owing money to pimps, brothel runners and moneylenders who charge them interest rates as high as 100 percent. The bank, she says, helped the women save the little money they had and make 3 percent interest on their savings.
“There was a 62-year-old sex worker who arranged money for her son’s wedding through her savings. There was another who could pay thousands of rupees in doctor fees for her heart ailment because she had savings with the bank. Now, they’re stitching up the cash in their clothes and pillow covers,” Desai says.
Initially backed by Population Services International for two years, Sangini shut for three months in 2009 when it ran out of funding. Then the India 800 Foundation, a Delhi-based NGO supported by the Ethnic Minority Foundation, U.K. stepped in and the bank opened again.
But it proved unsustainable as a business. One month’s running costs would eat up almost a year’s worth of profits. The bank also lost a substantial amount when it offered interest-free loans to the women around five years ago, many of which were never paid back. In mid-2017, the foundation withdrew its support and the bank had to cease operations. (The Kolkata bank, which is run entirely by sex workers, is still open.)
“We sent out tens of proposals to garner funds for the bank, but no donor was forthcoming. The moment we mentioned sex workers, they would walk away,” says Narayan Hegde, chairman of India 800 and trustee of Sangini.
No One They Can Trust
Originally launched by HIV awareness activists who realized day-to-day survival was a bigger concern for sex workers than contracting the disease, the bank quickly became a route to financial inclusion for part of the population that is overlooked by government policy. In 2014, the Indian government started the Pradhan Mantri Jan-Dhan Yojana to ensure everyone affordable access to financial services like banking, credit and insurance. According to the government’s progress report, as of the second week of March, women made up more than half of the scheme’s 313.4 million beneficiaries.
But Hegde says the benefits often don’t extend to sex workers since those women don’t have the documents needed to open bank accounts. And many of those who do have the requisite identification aren’t even aware the scheme exists.
“Several of them are not comfortable visiting regular banks since they don’t feel welcome there,” Hegde says.
With nowhere to put their earnings, Kamathipura’s sex workers have no choice but to hide their money or entrust it to someone else, making themselves vulnerable to fraudsters. Asha Rai, 55, has spent three and a half decades in the profession. After the bank shut last year, Rai, like other sex workers, was handed all her savings. Since she doesn’t have a permanent home, she was clueless as to where to store her money. She decided to give the cash to a postman working in the area for safe keeping. Soon after, he disappeared with all of her money.
“Tens of women had trusted the postman with their money, and all of them ended up getting duped. We approached the police, but they couldn’t find him,” Rai says.
“I’ve been pushed back 40 years – every penny I’d made was lost. The bank was one of the few entities sex workers could trust.”
*Names have been changed to protect identities.