The bank that allows sex workers in India to say 'no'

For prostitutes in Asia's largest red-light district, life is bleak and dangerous. Poverty, exploitation by pimps and the threat of contracting diseases from men who refuse to use condoms are daily challenges. But a breakthrough has been made for women in Mumbai's Kamathipura area.

Having long been unable to open bank accounts because hardly any of them have official papers or proof of address, a project lets the women put aside as little as 10 rupees (12.5p) at a time. Not only does it allow them the chance to save, but they do not risk having their money stolen from the brothels in which they work and live. "It has helped a lot," said Reena, who moved there from Calcutta. "Now no one can steal the money."

A drive through Kamath-ipura is not uplifting. Young, attractive women stand on the kerbside in front of shacks with beds rented for as little as 10 rupees per customer. Anecdotal evidence suggests many of the prostitutes have been trafficked.

"I was tricked here. I was in love with a man and came here with him. But when I got here he sold me," said Simla, 42, from Nepal. She said she had two children outside the red light district and the money she saved was for school fees. Simla hopes they will not work on the street. "I was fooled into this. I will not allow my children to do it," she said.

The mechanics of the bank, set up by Population Services International, are simple. Every day a woman from the community goes around the district with envelopes and a notebook. She takes money from the prostitutes, which is invested in a single account held in the name of the Sangini co-operative. When the women want to make a withdrawal, the co-operative advances the cash. So far, 2,500 women have deposited a total of more than £80,000.

The accounts have given the women a little security and a willingness to say "no" to a client. "It means I can say no if a customer does not want to use a condom," said Indra, from the southern state of Karnataka.

Despite the scheme, life is still tough. With India's rural communities in difficulties, more people are moving to the cities. Many end up working as prostitutes. The women in Kamathipura have seen their earnings go down. For older women it is particularly difficult; a younger woman can charge 100 rupees (£1.25) for sex, while an older woman may earn as little as 30 rupees.

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