On a weekday afternoon in the dusty streets of Mumbai’s red light district Kamathipura, Fatima collects Rs 20 from men to rent a cubicle in her brothel where girls charge them up to Rs 200 for sex.

Until last month, Fatima asked the girls to count their money every few days and put it in a bank a couple of streets away that accepted cash deposits as low as Rs 5 and never asked for any paper work or proof of identity, just a photo.

But when the Sangini Women’s Co-operative Society bank shut last month amid financial woes after 10 years of being run for sex workers largely by sex worker volunteers, all their savings were returned.

“Now they are hiding the money somewhere in the cubicle or are stitching it up in their pillow covers,” said Fatima, as she is known in the area and who gave only her first name. “I used to ask the girls to save money to send it home. They come from all parts of the country. Their families are poor,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, adding that she hoped Sangini would re-open if funds for administration were found.

Sangini was modelled on the country’s oldest bank for sex workers – Usha Cooperative – in Kolkata’s red light district of Sonagachi and was the first such in Mumbai to help sex workers save money that could help them escape to a different future. The cooperative bank, that started in India’s second largest red light district in 2007, offered fuss-free banking services to sex workers, collecting cash deposits from their doorsteps and even welcoming homeless girls to open savings accounts.

The western state of Maharashtra, India’s second most populous state with Mumbai as its capital, has for years been a major destination of trafficking victims who are lured with the promise of jobs but sold into sex slavery or domestic servitude. Campaigners say girls enslaved in sex work lead impoverished lives, often with no access to the money they make for the first few years, so it was a welcome move when the bank opened.

A woman shows deposit slips issued by Sangini - a now closed cooperative bank for sex workers, in Mumbai's red light district Kamathipura on December 15, 2017. Photo credit: Roli Srivastava/Thomson Reuters Foundation

Funding woes

“When we started, we were afraid if brothel madams and pimps will allow it to function. So we aimed at opening 100 accounts in the first year,” said Shilpa Merchant, former national coordinator of the American non-profit Population Services International that initially funded the project. “But we opened more than 100 accounts on the bank’s opening day itself.”

Sex workers soon volunteered with the bank to become collection agents, visiting brothels to collect money and handing over receipts. The number of accounts had increased to 5,000 when the bank closed.

“Some sex workers could get their children married, some left the profession and started a shop. We documented all this. The bank was giving them alternative options of livelihood,” said Merchant.

Anusaya, who would only give her first name, said she was born into the devadasi system, which “dedicates” girls to a life of sex work in the name of religion, and she was one of the first to open an account at Sangini with Rs 1,000.

“Then I started saving regularly. I also started volunteering for the bank,” said Anusaya. “I could buy a small room for myself a few years ago. I live there on my own now.”

Savita Tadke, who worked at Sangini, said she is regularly stopped by sex workers and asked when the bank will re-open. “The women here don’t have space. Their money, and at times their clothes, are stolen by pimps and customers,” she said.

Initially supported by Population Services International, Sangini hit a rough patch when the non-profit withdrew funding in 2009, trustees of the bank said. It then got funding support from India800 Foundation, a trust set up try to help the 800 million Indians living on less than $2 a day, which suffered a fund crunch three years later that affected its India operations as well, trustees said.

“We gave 3% interest to account holders on their deposits. We in turn deposited all the money into another nationalised bank that gave us 5% interest,” said Narayan Hegde, trustee of Sangini and chairman of India800 Foundation. “To run the bank on the 2% margin was becoming unsustainable. We had a liability of four million rupees when we closed. We had no support. The minute we said sex workers, nobody was interested [in funding the bank].”

He added, “Even now I am hopeful that if we get 1 million rupees, we can run the bank.”

Kamathipura is Mumbai’s oldest red light district with hundreds of brothels lining its dusty streets, but sex workers here were never united as they came from different parts of India and spoke different languages.

“This bank brought us together. Our collection agents had access to brothels. We were able to rescue many young girls from brothels in the last few years,” said Maya Lama, a board member of Sangini and a representative of sex workers in Kamathipura. “We have the strength to run the bank even now. We just don’t have the money.”

Fatima sits in front of the brothel she owns in Mumbai's red light district, Kamathipura, on Dec. 15, 2017. Photo credit: Roli Srivastava/Thomson Reuters Foundation

This article first appeared on Thomson Reuters Foundation News.