Money matters

Why 5,000 vulnerable women in Mumbai suddenly have no access to their bank

Tanuja Khan, a sex worker in Mumbai. (YouTube / BBC)

Thousands of women working in India’s sex industry have been without banking services for months now after a popular bank serving Kamathipura, the oldest red light district in Mumbai, has gone out of business. Sex workers in Mumbai are largely poor and vulnerable women who end up coming from all over India and working as prostitutes because they have few or no other choices.

The Sangini Women’s Co-operative Society Bank opened in 2007 in Mumbai’s red light district and has been a lifeline for sex workers who have very little money, but want to protect their hard-earned funds. After a decade as the go-to bank for sex workers in Mumbia — more than 5,000 customers in all — the bank closed down in December 2017 due to a lack of funds, Reuters reported. After it shut down, there were hopes that it might raise some money and be able to stay afloat. But such a turnaround has not materialized leaving sex workers, who are often shunned and stigmatized, with no options.

“Even now, it isn’t easy for us to open an account in a government bank,” a woman named Chandbi told the BBC. Chandbi worked as a collector, helping sex workers deposit the cash they earn into their bank accounts at Sangini. “We don’t own our houses. The bank asks for documents like electricity bills and IDs. We are poor and don’t own anything here, so we don’t have any documents.” Sangini was a particularly convenient bank for sex workers because they could open an account with merely providing a photo as documentation of identification. The bank had even allowed homeless women to open accounts.

“Several women were able to save a lot of money,” Chandbi recalled. “Some managed to save about a thousand dollars, some even saved up to $8,000. Many women have had long-term deposits.” Amassing a sum of money that large working as a prostitute is no small achievement given that, according to Reuters, sex workers often charge men as little as $3 for a sexual encounter.

Tanuja Khan is one of the sex workers who had an account at Sangini Bank. When the bank closed down, all of the women who held accounts there were given their savings back. But that left them with the problem of how to protect their money given that their business isn’t welcome at mainstream banks.

“Since the bank closed, I have been facing a lot of issues,” Khan told the BBC, adding that she now keeps all the money she has to her name on her person at all times — or hides it in a room at a brothel where she’s working. “Anyone can take my money from here,” she said.

The bank gave three percent interest to all account holders and, in turn would deposit funds into a government-backed bank that would yield five percent interest, according to Reuters. For some women, the bank actually helped them escape a life of sex work. “Some sex workers could get their children married, some left the profession and started a shop,” Shilpa Merchant, a former coordinator for an American-based non-profit that funded the project at the beginning, told Reuters. “We documented all this. The bank was giving them alternative options of livelihood.”

Below, watch BBC’s video report on the aftermath of the bank’s closure.

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