Sonagachi Project

Category 2

The project was organized to promote the use of health services and STI treatment for sex workers to reduce HIV incidence. The Project employed sex workers as peer educators to propagate information promoting behavioral change, to distribute and promote condoms, and to refer sex workers to clinics. Sex workers participate in all aspects of the project and have influenced the project to move from being focused only on health to empowering sex workers to demand better working conditions and human rights protections.

Goal of the Practice
  • Reduce the risk of HIV and STI transmission among sex workers in Sonagachi
  • Advocate for HIV and STIs being treated as occupational health hazards
  • Articulating the human rights of sex workers
Core Components
  • Community advocacy on STD services
  • Condom Promotion outreach, including involvement of sex workers
  • Improving quality of services at clinics
  • Advocacy among sex workers to demand better services as an empowering process
  • Training sex workers to exercise some control over their bodies
Noteworthy Results
  • Condom use increased significantly and has remained high
  • In 1999 the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya (DMSC) evolved out of the Project to organize sex workers into a union representing sex worker rights. The union has spread to other red light areas within the state of West Bengal and engages on behalf of sex workers internationally.
  • Over the course of its 14 years, the Sonagachi Project has empowered many sex workers with new skills, confidence and legitimacy, to contribute to Project decision-making meetings, to take and enforce decisions, and to represent the Project to police, politicians and the media.
  • Sex workers were increasingly promoted to positions of authority within the program and work in partnership with professional staff.
Lessons Learned
  • Health outcomes are the main focus of the Project's donors, while sex workers often place a greater priority on the Project's community development work. A focus on HIV prevention derives from a public health interest in commercial sex work as a risky site for HIV transmission, which is not equivalent to the sex workers' interest in having more secure and stable living and working conditions.
  • Even though it is promoted as a 'community-led program" the Project is driven by a complex set of negotiations between sex workers, local powerbrokers, madams, professionals and funding agencies and powerful local interests have had to be accommodated in order to allow the Project to continue.
Focus Areas
Implemented By
Originally the All India Institute of Hygiene and Public Health; now the Sonagachii Project
Participating Organization
Target Population
  • Adults (over 18)
  • Adolescents (ages 13-17)
  • Children (ages 2-12)
  • Sex Workers (SW)
> 50000
Implementation Years
01/2010 - ongoing