Mumbai: In the heart of Mumbai’s red light district, several prostitutes sit on plastic chairs in a narrow room waiting to do something many have never been able to do before—deposit their savings in a bank.

The small bank, set up in the notorious Kamathipura area, is the initiative of the sex workers and aims to help them break the vicious cycle of poverty and exploitation that keeps them indebted to brothel owners.

Breaking away: A sex worker deposits money into her account at the Sangini Women’s Cooperative Bank in Mumbai. The small bank, set up in the Kamathipura area, is the initiative of the sex workers, aiming to help them break the vicious cycle of poverty and exploitation that keeps them indebted to brothel owners.

The simple act of squirrelling away some money was previously out of reach for many customers of the Sangini Women’s Cooperative Bank. Prostitutes are often shunned by regular banks or lack residence documents or birth certificates officially required to open an account in India.

Now, for the last three months, they have been able to enter the bank daily to deposit an average of Rs10-20 and dream of things they will do as their savings grow.

“We may not have house papers, but we also dream," said Indra Jai, 40, who came to Mumbai from a southern village 20 years ago with promises of a job and then forced into prostitution. “We should get respect, our money is also good." Jai said she dreams of buying a small house and a tailor shop in her village and paying for her 19-year-old son’s college education.

The government estimates there are three million sex workers in India, many of whom began as children lured by traffickers; some are teenagers sold by impoverished families to brothel owners.

They spend up to five years working for free in dingy, airless rooms to repay the brothel owner’s investment. To survive they often turn to moneylenders charging exorbitant interest rates and drive themselves further into debt and dependance. Thoughts of breaking the cycle drives the bank’s more than 900 customers.

“If we fall ill who will look after us? We must save when we are still earning," said Jai, a founding member of the bank.

The bank, three narrow rooms that also house a cooperative store, is filled with women, some queuing up in front of a teller, others shopping for soap, food, grains and condoms.

Mumbai’s sex workers began a women’s cooperative group two years ago with support from PSI, a Washington, DC-based non-profit organization. The bank and store were launched with Rs16 lakh in funding from PSI. “We thought it would take a year to get 100 customers, but we opened more than 100 accounts on day one," said Shilpa Merchant, PSI’s Mumbai director.

Guided by PSI, the bank invests daily deposits totalling Rs25,000 in fixed savings schemes with state-run banks earning 9.5% interest per year.

Their purchases bagged, bank work done, the sex workers linger to chat. The soft clatter of computer keys is an escape from the street outside, where they will stand later with painted faces watching men walk slowly by.

Entering the bank every day helps them hold onto their dreams. “Sometimes I think my life is a waste," said Gulabja Sheikh, 35. “But now I have my house to work for."