Towards a better life: Sex workers take charge

With the help of 15 NGOs, sex workers across Mumbai have started a
self-help movement through which they solve their problems

Mumbai: When Kusum’s three-month-old son was kidnapped six months
ago, she was convinced she would never see him again. A commercial
sex worker from Koperkhairane, she felt she wasn’t "privileged”
enough for the police to help her out. But by the eighth day, the
police had tracked down her son, who had been sold to a childless
couple.

Malathy Iyer, for Times of India

Then there’s Kiran, the sex worker who succumbed to complications
arising from AIDS. She died penniless in her tiny room in the Airoli
township of Navi Mumbai. Not one of her neighbours was ready to help
lift the her body down the narrow staircase. Yet her last rites were
carried out, and her mother and children were given Rs 22,000.

The invisible force at work, in both instances, was a new-found
bonding between the commercial sex workers themselves. Over the last
two years, at least 50,000 sex workers across Mumbai have joined
Aastha: a movement supported by 15 city NGOs, through which they
share their experiences, help each other, and create awareness on
sexually-transmitted diseases (STDs).

Aastha, which means `taking care’ in Hindi, has a comprehensive
crisis response network across the city. When in trouble, commercial
sex workers can turn to the nearest Aastha gat (group) member, and
help will be given. This is the underlying principle that has made
the movement a successful one.

When Asha, who lives in Thane and is the incharge of the Aastha gats
(groups) in the Thane-Navi Mumbai belt, gets a call, she hops onto
her bike, and heads to the destination. Initially, she was sceptical
of the success of the project, but months of observing a support
system of doctors and counsellors returning to the red-light areas,
convinced her of the group’s efficacy. Says Asha: "Ever since we’ve
joined hands, even the top cop at the station concerned meets us at
the earliest.”

When the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation gave a five-year grant of
$258 million to the Family Health International’s (FHI) Aastha
project, the idea was to work out an Indian model of intervention.
The main objective of FHI’s Aastha project is to tackle HIV\AIDS and
other STDs. "The STD clinics we run helps us keep in touch with the
women,” says Rajeev Kumar from FHI.

Dr S S Kudalkar, who heads the Mumbai District AIDS Control Society,
says, "A survey on the prevalence of HIV\AIDS shows a high incidence
of the disease-almost 40%-among some groups of sex workers. FHI runs
clinics that work with patients suffering from STDs in some of our
centres.”

Baby, a sex worker from Grant Road, says that she was initially
reluctant to join the Aastha fold. What changed her mind was an
Aastha office-bearer who helped solve her daughter’s marital
problems. "My daughter’s in-laws were troubling her in Lucknow, but
sir spoke to some officials out there, and she has never been
harassed again." Baby has since `graduated’ to the role of peer
educator in the Aastha family. Her friend, Farida, recalls how it was
impossible to get a bed in government hospitals for HIV\AIDS-
afflicted people. "But when we go with our I-cards, we are attended
to immediately,” she says.

According to Kumar, the Aastha system achieved a 100% response to
crisis calls, with an average response time of 30 minutes in one
year. "Till now, 26,469 cases of crisis incidences have been
supported through this network,” he adds.

Kiran’s death would have gone unnoticed if her neighbourhood Aastha
group’s didi had not noticed her absence. "We got her hospitalised,
but it was too late,” recalls Asha. "But we had made a note of
clients who owed her money.”After her death, the group collected Rs
22,000 as dues, and sent it to her now-orphaned children in Kolkata.

(Names of the women have been changed to protect their identity)

The project:

l NGOs across Mumbai and Thane work with the sex workers to setup
Aastha

l Health camps are held to mobilise people to the clinic

l Each site has a self-help group (SHG) called Aastha gat, comprising
community members who meet regularly

l A task force committee has been added to each Aastha gat and is
responsible for rapid response to crisis situations

Sex in the city

l There are about 1,506 brothels in Mumbai and Navi Mumbai

l There are 363 brothels in Thane

l Each brothel has an average of 4.5 female sex workers

l The average number of clients per sex worker every night is 2.7
during peak days

l At least 6,000 sex workers operate through lodges, hotels and bars

l There are about 2,095 `sex access joints’ in Mumbai, Navi Mumbai
and Thane. These include bars, brothels and street corners

l About 87% of the sex joints surveyed had condoms

Source: FHI & USAID

50,000 is the number of sex workers involved in the self-help group

26,469 is the number of emergency cases that the group has solved in
one year

30 minutes is the average time taken by the crisis centre to respond
to an emergency



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