Worlds biggest red-light district has 12,000 escorts and multi-storey brothels

More than 10,000 prostitutes roam the streets of one of the most heavily-populated cities on the planet. Sonagachi in Kolkata, India has hundreds of brothels, the majority of which are multi-storey, lining the streets.

Prostitution is legal in the country, though some aspects are considered illegal such as kerb-crawling – and the region's main area is the Sonagachi project.

The Sonagachi project is a sex workers' cooperative that operates in the area. It aims to empower sex workers to insist on condom use and to stand up against abuse. It was founded by public health scientist Smarajit Jana in 1992 but is now largely run by the prostitutes themselves in a union called Durbar.

All the sex workers of Sonagachi are members of the union, and they refuse to have sex with their clients without a condom.

A documentary around the area in the early 2000s estimated that there were 10,000 prostitutes in the region, that number has since risen to around about 12,000. The Government does not interfere in the region.

“The government accepts that it is a part of life and society,” Smarajit Jana, the chief adviser of Durbar told Al Jazeera.

“No political party in Bengal would want to move them out. Perhaps it is due to the culture of the state, its history of communism and sensitivity towards the marginalised."

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The documentary, Born Into Brothels, followed the children of the Sonagachi prostitutes via photography and camera work – with Zana Briski winning the Academy Award for best documentary.

But Durbar were not happy with the film, saying it presented the children's parents as abusive and ignored the prostitutes' efforts to provide education programs and career-building activities for their children.

The region faced problems in the past when it came to trafficking, with immigrants put to work without being properly assessed. However, those practices have now been put in place, with Al Jazeera claiming that two weeks of counselling takes place, with minors handed over to the state government and reunited with families.

Durbar say that around 1,000 women come to the region every year to try and make a career and get some stability in life, but Jana points out that there are concerns about the immediate future of the industry.

“Real estate development and the advent of technology have already wiped out brothels in other parts of the world, including in Kamathipura in Mumbai,” he said.

“In the past two to three years the trend has set in. Land prices have gone up in the vicinity of Sonagachi and realty developers are eyeing the area. The mobile phone has provided anonymity and an alternate means of doing business for sex workers. Sonagachi is fading away, although slowly,” added Jana.

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