What does a woman do when her little children lie curled up in a corner of the house, depleted by hunger, and when the landlord is barking for the monthly rent? She turns to the only money-generating avenue she sees as her escape: selling her body.
The children were fed and the rent was paid but Mari, 38, was ashamed of what she did for a living. It is three years since she has turned her back on the sex trade. Her husband and children are unaware of how she generated the money to keep the home fires burning - yet Mari's past is a constant reminder of how something can haunt.
Today, Mari's eyes shine as words rush out of her mouth - faster than she can think. For she is a proud woman, thanks to World Vision's initiatives to give Female Sex Workers (FSW) a second chance at life. It was World Vision that helped Mari put her past behind her and carve a better future.
With its national headquarters in Chennai, World Vision works in the areas of HIV/AIDS, child labor and poverty alleviation in India and across 97 countries.
While the organization's Self-Help Group (SHG) was an idea that worked well, World Vision believes that its Income Generation Programme (IGP) is an even better alternative. It achieves the twin objectives of integrating the women with the community, and giving them a monetary start with which to make a new life.
Mari's garlic business is an inspiring story of what true commitment and motivation can achieve. She now generates a decent profit from bottling pickles and is even making enough to hire a helper.
"We started her off with a loan of Rs10, 000 (US$1=Rs 44)," says Clara Raphael of World Vision. "Having started with cleaning and packing garlic pods, she progressed to pickle-making for which there is immense demand and has now expanded her range to include snacks and savories."
The amazing thing about Mari is that apart from turning her life around so successfully she is, today, a beacon for others. She actively canvasses at monthly meetings to urge those in the flesh trade to live a life of dignity. "Initially, the money I needed for sheer survival compelled me towards that horrible life," says Mari. "But today, I live with my head held high. I earn a decent living and make an income just like others in our society."
World Vision also offers these women a space to come together as a support group and hold regular meetings. About 40 women gather at their premises, share experiences and listen to stories like Mari's that are empowering. That it is possible to make a fresh start is the theme of such meetings.
Bruised and broken, these women often need a space to get body and soul back together before they embark on a new life. This is where World Vision's Short Stay Homes are a boon. Living as a group, they shed their sense of isolation and acquire skills in basket weaving, candle- and soft toy-making. Many of them are offered training in counseling and go on to become able ambassadors, merging with the community at large and helping others in the process. Since their inception in 1999, the Short Stay Homes have impacted the lives of around 30 women.
All Sarla wanted from life was to be was a good wife, and mother to her five children. When her husband, a truck driver, died after a prolonged illness, eventually diagnosed as AIDS-related, the 32-year-old widow had never heard of the disease. She didn't know even then that her husband had infected her or that her two young children had been born HIV+. Burdened with five children and the stigma of a dreaded disease, Chennai-based Sarla approached her father for assistance - but in vain. Treated as outcasts in her paternal home, mother and the affected children were rescued and given a home by World Vision as part of their new concept of Group Living.
"I live with a woman who has two children of her own. I gave up one of my children to Udavum Karangal, (a Chennai-based NGO for orphans and the destitute), the other kids dropped out of school and I started to make a living by selling 'sundal' (boiled chickpeas). Today, thanks to this NGO, I work as a peer counselor with a de-addiction centre."
The women share household chores and Sarla has found the peace that had eluded her all these years. "We live like sisters though we're not of the same blood. Even real sisters couldn't be more affectionate," Sarla says emotionally. She yearns for the child she gave away, a boy who does not recognize his own mother, but believes she had no other choice at the time.
"The two women care for one another because they understand the true nature of this illness. They are more confident and able to live their lives freely," says Raphael. In Chennai, World Vision has five such Group Living homes and one Short Stay Home where 25 women live. Initially, they pay the rent and provide dry provisions and slowly phase that assistance.
That HIV/AIDS could forge a bond between two women, enough for them to become each other's only family in the face of an entire world's ostracism is ample proof of the value of the Group Living idea.
The neighborhood they inhabit is not privy to their story, so their identity is protected. Of course that is easier said than done. The staff at World Vision faces the challenge of protecting the anonymity of the HIV/AIDS-affected women and tackling societal discrimination and instances of police harassment that the women experience. The organization also arranges the burials of HIV/AIDS deaths.
"Whenever someone from World Vision visits, I introduce her as my sister or brother. They are our family now so there is no untruth here," says a smiling Sarla, deeply grateful for a new chance at living.