Launched in 1992 by the All India Institute of Hygiene and Public Health, the Sonagachi Project began as a small health promotion project to inform sex workers in Kolkata (Calcutta), India about AIDS as well as to promote condom use and sexually transmitted infection (STI) testing in this community. The mobilisation effort, which was conducted in Sonagachi red light district, has evolved into a multi-faceted community effort to empower sex workers (particularly women) in ways that go beyond HIV prevention. The project, which is a collaboration between government, non-government, and community-based organisations, works in over 40 areas throughout the state of West Bengal to address a community of around 60,000 male, female, and transgender sex workers based in brothels, streets, and hotels.
Communication Strategies: 

Efforts to empower people with knowledge and tools for health are at the centre of this programme. Peer educators provide sexual health and HIV education to sex workers and madams, and distribute condoms. As of this writing, 43 STI/HIV clinics in and around the red light areas and its districts of West Bengal offer treatment to sex workers and their children.

The present programme has broadened its base to include various development components, not just health and HIV. Women who cannot read attend literacy classes, taught by other sex workers, and enroll their children in daycare, school, and other programmes. To support these non-formal education efforts, 29 educational centres in and around the red light area of Kolkata have been set up. To foster economic security, sex workers seeking credit are invited to patronise a community-lending cooperative that provides affordable loans. Registered in 1995, this cooperative society of sex workers (Usha Multipurpose Cooperative Society) today has over 5000 members. As part of its empowerment strategy, the Sonagachi Project also promotes the talents of sex workers through a cultural wing - 'The Komal Gandhar'. In addition, an anti-trafficking unit controlled by self-regulatory boards works across West Bengal to protect children; two homes are also in operation to provide a safe shelter for children in distress.

Participation is a key feature of this project. In 1995, the sex worker community being served by the project came forward to develop their own network - Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC) - and to create forums, such as workshops and seminars, dealing with basic rights to health in the broader framework of livelihood security and the right to self-determination. DMSC took over management of the project in 1999. Sex workers get involved through DMSC's Women's Coordinating Committee. The group has become an advocate for the rights and interests of sex workers, and is leading a movement to demand the decriminalisation of prostitution. According to one DMSC official, "An effective community development approach to HIV/STI prevention must make community participation real by by building human and community capacity to participate. This creates the social space for participation and transfers project ownership to the community."

In recent years, DMSC has been mobilising sex workers in the districts of West Bengal to replicate the Sonagachi model in other brothel settings. To stimulate involvement and commemorate its years of work, Sonagachi conducts annual sex worker conferences/celebrations. The 2004 event, conducted in partnership with the National Network of Sex Workers, will take place in Kolkata from February 15 2004 to March 3 2004, and will feature speeches, folk music and dancing, live drama, panel discussions (e.g., "Strategy & Policy to Combat Trafficking"), seminars (e.g., on violence and women's subordination), discussions (e.g., "A Decade of Our Struggle for Sex Workers: Rights-media perception"), peer education sessions, and evening cross-cultural food festivals. Each year, DMSC observes March 3 as the International Day for Sex Workers Rights.

Development Issues: 

HIV/AIDS, Health, Rights, Literacy, Women, Children, Economic Development.

Key Points: 

Traditionally regarded as vectors of STIs, sex workers have, according to organisers, long been viewed as a population to be "controlled" in the interest of public health or as a passive audience for health promotion activities. Highly stigmatised, engaged in illicit and usually illegal activities, and socially disenfranchised, they say, sex workers have had little voice in how they are treated by the public health establishment. Furthermore, organisers claim, little attention has been paid to their non-health-related needs, their perspectives, and the context of their lives and relationships.

Evidence exists to support the claim that this project has had an impact. In 1992, rates of consistent condom use with clients in the previous 2 months was 1%. By 2001, that figure had increased to 65%. Prevalence of syphilis dropped during that period from 25% to 8.76%. From 1992 to 1998, HIV prevalence among female sex workers increased from 1% to 5%; however, the 1998 figure for Mumbai, Bombay was 51%.

The Sonagachi Project has been identified as a World Health Organization (WHO) model project.


"The Sonagachi Project: A Global Model for Community Development", Horizons Report May 2002; and announcement posted by Mrinal kanti Dutta and Angura Begum to the Sex-Work Forum on February 12 2003; and letter sent from Swapna Gayen to The Communication Initiative on February 6 2004.