Kolkata: In 1992, when the Union government launched in Sonagachi—Kolkata’s biggest red-light district—a programme to spread awareness on sexually transmitted diseases, there was no union of sex workers that could drive it through the community.

The government soon realized awareness alone couldn’t make much difference, and the programme fell through because it couldn’t empower sex workers to say no to unprotected sex.

Guiding others: Durbar’s programme director Bharati Dey says her organization has managed to stem the spread of HIV in Sonagachi though the number of sex workers there has gone up. Indranil Bhoumik / Mint

That isn’t a mean achievement considering that in 1992 there were 8,000 sex workers in Sonagachi and only 2.7% of them insisted on condoms, according to the survey Dey cites.

“At present, only 5.2% of Sonagachi’s sex workers are HIV positive," says Dey. “We have managed to stem the spread of HIV in Sonagachi, though the number of sex workers in Sonagachi has gone up by almost 5,000 in the past 15 years or so."

Key to Durbar’s success in Sonagachi is the board it formed comprising sex workers and government officials, which acts as a regulator. It stipulates “best practices" for sex workers, protects them from being exploited by clients, and provides healthcare to those affected by HIV, says Dey.

Inspired by Durbar’s success, 33 other red-light districts in West Bengal have replicated the model.

“We feel a lot safer now," says a sex worker in Sonagachi, who refuses to reveal her identity. “Thanks to Durbar, no one can exploit us, not even the police can force us to do something that we don’t want to."

Durbar, which bands together some 65,000 sex workers in West Bengal, is expanding into Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa and Maharashtra, where it is advising “sisters" on how to curb unprotected sex and tackle the growing menace of sexually transmitted diseases.

“We are in touch with sex workers in Bangladesh, Nepal and Myanmar as well… Our model of forming self-regulatory boards is being studied by sex workers in these countries," says Dey.

Despite its success in West Bengal, Durbar’s model has been facing resistance from sex workers in Bihar and Maharashtra because they are not convinced they would benefit from banning unprotected sex.

“Most people are concerned that clients would leave if they insisted on use of condoms," says Dey.

Alongside, Durbar runs free clinics for sex workers across West Bengal. There are 51 Durbar-run clinics in the state offering healthcare almost free of cost thanks to the support from organizations such as the Ford Foundation and the National AIDS Control Organisation.

“The clinics are crucial because they help detect the virus early," says one HIV-affected former sex worker who now works for Durbar. “My job is to tell our sisters what not to do, and when it comes from me, they take the advice seriously," she says, breaking down in tears.

“We find Durbar’s work with the community very impressive," says Steven Solnick, Ford Foundation’s representative in India. “We have supported Durbar’s initiatives on networking, rights protection and creating alternative livelihood for sex workers."