Hero of the Month: Seema Fokla, International Symbol of Sex Worker Unity

March 1, 2020

This month, DSW honors Ms. Seema Fokla as our Sex Worker Hero of the Month. Ms. Fokla is the current president of the Durbar Mahila Smanwaya Committee (DMSC or the Durbar), which translates to “The Unstoppable Women’s Synthesis Committee.” The Durbar is a collective of 65,000 sex workers, which functions as a forum for female, male, and transgender sex workers in West Bengal, India. DMSC is managed exclusively by sex workers and their children to create solidarity and collective strength within the sex worker community and other marginalized groups.

Since its founding in 1995, DMSC has been a beacon of collective citizenship and shared empowerment within the international sex worker rights community. It was the Durbar that established March 3 as International Sex Workers Rights Day. In 2001, the collective organized a festival that brought together more than 25,000 sex workers from around the world in Kolkata. DMSC’s mission is to integrate sex worker rights into the broader human rights movements.

No one has fought harder for the collective’s values than Seema Fokla. Under her leadership, the organization has pioneered sex work as a labor issue, incorporated transgender/non-conforming and LGBTQ rights into its work, and championed the separation of sex work from the environment of discrimination that surrounds it. Ms. Fokla is a former sex worker, as are all of the members of DMSC’s executive board. She sees the organization’s primary mission as one of fundamental respect. “If our profession becomes legal, then we will be treated with dignity. People will stop harassing us. Our children won’t be looked down upon,” Ms. Fokla said to a BBC reporter in a 2015 interview.

India has one of the largest sex work markets in the world. Prostitution itself is not illegal in the country, but the act of soliciting a client is. With more than 3 million sex workers working across Indian cities, more and more are participating in protests to demand licenses to work. Much of this organized activism is credited to the work of the Durbar.

Leaders of DMSC appear with the Mayor of Kolkata, India. (Photo: DMSC, 2017)

Seema Fokla speaks to a BBC reporter on the Durbar’s work in Kolkata and beyond. (2015)

DMSC activists demonstrate on the streets of Kolkata. Their collective includes male, female, and TGNC sex workers, as well as the children of sex workers who also face stigmatization.