1997 – First National Conference of Sex Workers in India

The Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC), or the “Unstoppable Women’s Synthesis Committee,” host India’s first national convention of sex workers on 14 November, 1997 in Kolkata. The title of the convention is ‘Sex Work is Real Work: We Demand Workers Rights’.

DMSC is a collective that came together through involvement as health workers and peer educators in an HIV/STD Control Project running in Sonagachi since 1992. Early in this project sex workers recognised that in order to address even the most basic health issues it was crucial to address a wide range of needs, not just medical ones. This meant recognising sex workers as complete people with a whole range of emotional and material needs.

The national conference releases a “Sex Workers’ Manifesto” – an eight-page document setting out the basis of sex workers’ rights.

The manifesto outlines the social status of sex workers in Indian society and how they are viewed as either a threat to public health and society, or as powerless objects of pity. It examines the history of sexuality in India, including society’s unequal rules as they relate to the sexuality of women and men, both inside and outside of marriage, and how many people internalise and act out these values without being aware of it. Male sex workers are welcomed in the manifesto, which recognises that criminalisation of same sex acts also makes their lives difficult.

In conclusion, the manifesto recognises that the movement is still young, but that sex workers organising for themselves to improve conditions of work and quality of life is central to it.