VEENA KRISHNAMOORTHY

The smart card initiative in Karnataka seeks to bring a sense of inclusion, along with better health facilities, to sex workers.

We now feel that we are workers like anyone else, pursuing a livelihood...

PUSHPA and her colleagues, armed with their new smart cards, will soon be able to buy clothes for themselves and their loved ones. By taking advantage of cash incentives, offered by some vendors, these women from now on can look their best. With every purchase, points will be added. These accumulated points, credited to their smart cards, can be redeemed for discounts or gifts, when they make purchases at a later date. They can also present these cards at restaurants or at the store where they buy their provisions.

The only condition

The only string attached to keep these cards valid is that they will have to turn up for health check-ups at least once in every three months. The women will have to report at the clinic set up by the Karnataka Health Promotion Trust (KHPT), Mysore (funded by Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's India AIDS Initiative) for the sex workers, where they will undergo a thorough health check-up, for any symptoms of STI (Sexually Transmitted Infections).The Ashodaya Mahila Samanwaya Samithi is a newly registered organisation of sex workers from Mysore and Mandya districts who have been mobilised by the KHPT. This innovative smart card scheme is the result of several discussions and partnership between KHPT, Ashodaya and Pennant Consulting Services Pvt. Ltd., which prepared the software for the initiative.The pilot smart card initiative involves 500 sex workers. "We are excited at the prospect of getting the smart card. It is not so much about the discount, but as much about the feeling that I am as privileged as any other person in society," says Vijaylakshmi. At the onset of this project, five business establishments that include two restaurants, two garment shops and a provision store have taken up this smart card initiative, and shortly will introduce it to their customers. Small hand-held computers, Simputers, at their establishments will read the smart cards. While the vendors can record and read their transactions on these cards, they will have no access to the health data stored on them. The health data can only be entered and accessed at the clinic, using the main computer. The system is designed in such a way that the Simputers will not read cards that have not been updated at the clinic in the last three months.With the sex worker facing stigma and discrimination every day of her life, the smart card is more than just a "plastic" cash incentive; it symbolises a sense of self-worth, independence and most importantly, a sense of inclusion. "These days, everyone carries a credit, insurance or other cards, so why not us?" was the uniform chorus among them.

The courage to question

Their experience in the last two years, of coming together, has helped them to assess their own lives more objectively and in some cases even come to terms with the choices they were forced to make. They articulate this clearly. "We used to constantly feel guilty and worthless because we felt we were doing something wrong. Since we became part of the self-organisation, we realise that we had responded to many compulsions and realities in our lives. Most of these were not of our making and therefore we now feel that we are workers like anyone else, pursuing a livelihood like anyone else." Having suffered neglect, abuse, exploitation, harassment and even violence from either close family members, clients, middlemen, law enforcement officers or often, just the general public, they say, "Most of us did not enter this profession voluntarily. Our circumstances and those around us forced us to, why should people question what we do to survive?" They are beginning to gain the courage to question and to negotiate. They recognise their rights like any other citizen and are prepared to exercise them.With sex workers having to support their families with their earnings and needing to spend a substantial amount on transport, refreshments and their personal grooming and appearance, getting a discount on their purchases and bills is a meaningful incentive. As Pushpa put it, "It is not uncommon for us to buy as many as three new saris a month. Being smartly dressed is an integral part of our work."

The real aim

The real driving force behind the new smart cards initiative is to motivate the women to seek optimum options to enhance their health. Regular health check-ups and timely treatment are essential to counter the risk of STI in their profession. The efforts of Ashodaya has ensured that over 1,100 sex workers are availing of the health services, provided at the clinic.Ashodaya, along with well-known public figures, has celebrated Labour Day, Independence Day, World AIDS Day, and more recently their first anniversary. In their effort to gain the respect that they deserve from society, the smart card could turn out to be another small step in their courageous journey towards being recognised as equals.