Sex workers from Budhwarpeth, Pune, are working as peer educators to spread awareness on health, safety and rights

Surekha takes out her diary and starts filling different columns in a calendar stuck on the wall. She has just returned from a field visit. As she can barely read and write, she fills up the information by pasting stickers of different colours after matching with the picture drawn in the column. Every parameter like regular check-up, condom users, hospital visits and HIV status of women that she has surveyed has a different colour.

She is one of the sex workers who are trying to empower fellow sex workers on health and other social issues in Budhwarpeth, a red light area in Pune. An estimated 3000 sex workers operate from here. Surekha takes care of about 60 members of the community. She meets them, listens to their problems, gathers information about their health and comes back to the Dropping Centre, where she regularly updates the calendar.

Seasonal migration is common in drought-prone western Maharashtra when people move from rural belts to urban areas. Frequent migration also happens from the rural, impoverished areas Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat. A suitable intervention was required to target this migrating population.

When Pathfinder, an international organisation, first began working on community empowerment among sex workers in Budhwarpeth, there was very little sense of community bonding. The community is culturally heterogeneous and was accustomed to traditional HIV prevention interventions. It was not acceptable to people belonging to different castes and religions. In addition frequent police raids made the community members vulnerable. Conflicting interests of different implementing agencies further prevented any sort of collective community action.

Keeping these factors in mind, Pathfinder started a community empowerment project called ‘Mukta' with the help of local groups and the Maharashtra State AIDS Control Society in November 2009. Unlike other interventions, this is owned and operated by those most at risk — the sex workers. It helps sex workers to learn how to work together to get the services they deserve, from health and safety to their basic rights. The objective is to not only to create awareness among sex workers, but also make the programme sustainable.

Jyoti Tai, a peer educator, explains that the approach is tailor-made based on needs. “First we talk about non-health and HIV issues; then comes the health aspect. Then we persuade them to undergo a HIV test. If anybody is found positive, we make the arrangement to register them in the hospital and provide treatment.”

As a result, sex workers now have a ‘safe space' in the form of a Community Learning Centre (CLC) within the red-light area. This has motivated them to come together and discuss common problems. The centre even has beautician and stitching courses to empower sex workers. It provides necessary impetus to sex workers for collective and cohesive action, which resulted in formation of the community-elected sex worker-core committee.

The core committee has made rapid strides in addressing some major issues such as sanitation and electricity in the area, and has also begun to interact with police, civic authorities and voluntary organisations. “We didn't have proper street lights and garbage removal system in the area, so members of the committee took up these issues with the Pune Municipal Corporation and sorted it out,” informs Meenakshi, president of the core committee. “Now our demand is to obtain voting cards,” she adds.

Popularly known as Mala Sinha, a sex worker residing in Manpasand brothel boasts that none of the 12 female sex workers working there has any health problem. “We go for regular check-ups every three months. All of us send the customer back if they refuse to have protected sex.”

HIV prevalence among female sex workers in the area has registered a significant decrease — from 41.2 per cent in 2008 to 13 per cent in 2011.

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