“Whatever I Have, I Have Made by Coming into this Profession”: The Intersection of Resources, Agency, and Achievements in Pathways to Sex Work in Kolkata, India

  • Swendeman D
  • Fehrenbacher A
  • Ali S
 et al. 
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This article investigated the complex interplay of choice, socioeconomic structural factors, and empowerment influencing engagement in sex work. The analysis was focused on pathways into and reasons for staying in sex work from in-depth qualitative interviews with participants (n = 37) recruited from the Durbar community-led structural intervention in Kolkata, India. Kabeer's theory of empowerment focused on resources, agency, and achievements was utilized to interpret the results. Results identified that contexts of disempowerment constraining resources and agency set the stage for initiating sex work, typically due to familial poverty, loss of a father or husband as a breadwinner, and lack of economic opportunities for women in India. Labor force participation in informal sectors was common, specifically in domestic, construction, and manufacturing work, but was typically insufficient to provide for families and also often contingent on sexual favors. The availability of an urban market for sex work served as a catalyst or resource, in conjunction with Durbar's programmatic resources, for women to find and exercise agency and achieve financial and personal autonomy not possible in other work or as dependents on male partners. Resources lost in becoming a sex worker due to stigma, discrimination, and rejection by family and communities were compensated for by achievements in gaining financial and social resources, personal autonomy and independence, and the ability to support children and extended family. Durbar's programs and activities (e.g., savings and lending cooperative, community mobilization, advocacy) function as empowering resources that are tightly linked to sex workers' agency, achievements, and sex work pathways.

Author-supplied keywords

  • Empowerment
  • India
  • Sex work
  • Structural interventions
  • Trafficking
  • Women

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  • Dallas Swendeman

  • Anne E. Fehrenbacher

  • Samira Ali

  • Sheba George

  • Deborah Mindry

  • Mallory Collins

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