India’s Sex Workers are Still Unbanked

Over 181m women have opened bank accounts in the past few years thanks to a government program, but most of India’s 3m sex workers remain unbanked. A new task force on financial inclusion for sex workers, announced in January, might be too little too late.

Puja Changoiwala

April 1, 2019

India’s Sex Workers are Still Unbanked

At 14, Rita Ray moved from her hometown of Kolaghat, West Bengal to the state’s bustling capital, Kolkata, to join her new husband. She soon realized he had another wife. The relationship grew abusive and Ray got a divorce. But she couldn’t return home — her parents couldn’t support her and divorces were taboo. So Ray walked to a brothel in Sonagachi, the largest red light district in Asia, and offered herself in exchange for shelter in a cramped room, two meals a day, and ₹500 ($7) per client.

“Since my father was old and my brother unwell, we had no breadwinner,” said Ray, now 37, “I assumed I’d send some money home. But for the first few years, the madam would collect my fee directly from the client. I’d never see the cash. She’d say she was saving the amount, and would hand it to me when I went home. Once, when my mother was critically ill, I asked her for the money, but she refused. I begged her, argued with her, cried before her. She just wouldn’t listen. She’d say it was my rent and food cost.”

Aghast, Ray borrowed ₹2,000 ($28) from a local moneylender and sent it home, not realizing she’d have to pay ₹10,000 ($141) in interest over the next year.

Like Ray, many sex workers, who have been excluded from traditional banking, turn to unsafe alternatives. While the Indian government has launched programs like Pradhan Mantri Jan-Dhan Yojana (PMJDY), a “National Mission for Financial Inclusion” that has helped 351.6 million Indians open bank accounts without a minimum balance, PMJDY still requires documents that many sex workers do not have. Relatives or pimps traffick or sell women into slavery when they are young, divorced, or widowed.