Fleece them intelligently
For a red-light area, Sonagachi is remarkably healthy. A powerful prostitutes' union here has reduced the HIV prevalence rate to 5 per cent - a big achievement considering that in the brothels of Mumbai, it is as high as 60 per cent. Other sexually transmitted diseases are down to 1 per cent compared with 12 per cent in the red-light areas of other major Indian cities.
Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee's (DMSC) campaign to promote the use of condoms has won worldwide acclaim. The secret of its success lies in unionised women collectively boycotting men who refuse to use condoms. All members are sworn to condom use and violations result in reprimands and censure.
Samarjit Jana, a doctor who galvanised Sonagachi's prostitutes to act as any other labour union would, says, 'The outcome of a negotiation depends on the relative power of the two parties. When an individual prostitute deals with a client, she is weak. To change the power equation, she needs the support of other sex workers.'
The United Nations rates the DMSC strategy as the 'best practice' model to curb HIV in brothels worldwide.
The union also fights trafficking in underaged girls, informing the police whenever it comes across a woman younger than 18 engaged in the sex business.
Moreover some of the prostitutes have pledged their bodies for medical research and have agreed to donate organs. More than 1,000 sex workers have filled in donation forms at the urging of Ganadarpan, a voluntary organisation fighting to promote organ donation.
'Customers exploit our bodies during our lifetime; here is a way for us to do something really meaningful with them when we are dead,' says a DMSC member.
There is a chronic shortage of donors in India, not least because of the Hindu belief in rebirth. Many fear that if they give away their organs, they will come back without them in their next life.
The Kama Sutra, the sex bible authored by yoga expert Mallanga Vatsayana, is compulsory reading in Sonagachi. Besides detailing sexual positions - some of which defy gravity - Vatsayana offers seduction tips.
'Sleeping with strangers for gain does not come naturally to women,' runs Vatsayana's advice, 'yet to succeed as a prostitute, you must disguise your love for money as a natural desire for the man himself. Prove to him that he, not his money, inspires your divine lust by always seeming selflessly devoted. Don't be too obviously grasping; use your wits to fleece him intelligently.'
The union's biggest objective is to get prostitution legalised as a profession to save it from the depredations of criminal gangs, corrupt law enforcers, pimps and greedy brothel owners. That goal is still far off, although the union wings of several political parties have pledged support and some of Calcutta's leading poets, authors and film and theatre directors have graced international sex workers' conferences organised by the DMSC.
Inaugurating a recent conference, Sunil Gangopadhyay, one of India's greatest living poets, said: 'Nothing is more immoral than attacking prostitution on moral grounds.'