Satyavati's life and work are now focused on one agenda - to improve the lot of her colleagues. The burly, middle-aged sex worker has the backing of the entire community of sex workers of the East Godavari district in Andhra Pradesh. One of the handful of people who spearheaded the cause of sex workers, Satyavati is now the president of the Velugu Rekha Mahila Seva Samakhya, a community-based organization (CBO) with over 3,000 members. The CBO is a culmination of a process, which began in March 2000.
Women's Initiation for Sustainable Empowerment (WISE), another CBO of sex workers in the district with over 970 registered members, and Velugu Rekha are striving to make a difference, but that is not all they have in common. The real force behind both organizations is the NGO Community Health Awareness and Natural Green Environment Society (CHANGES). Its core mandate is caring for the health of the vulnerable sections and protection of environment. However, it also facilitates the activities of CBOs. CHANGES is one of the first organizations in the state to mobilize sex workers and give them a forum.
"To call the process of engagement with sex workers arduous would be an understatement! We knew that sex workers were totally marginalized, yet they were completely hostile towards the mainstream. We took one step at a time, identified hot spots, assessed their needs, reached out to key persons in the community and then the community as a whole," says D Sujatha, Project Manager, CHANGES.
The NGO impelled sex workers to recognize their need to come together and provided them with a place to meet, an agenda to be implemented and goals to be achieved. "We trained many of them to be peer educators to talk to their colleagues about STDs, general health, HIV and other things," explains K Sanyasi Rao from the Kakinada Project. Extensive and articulate campaigning has been their forte.
CHANGES' project areas include Peddapuram, a traditional hub for sex work, and Kakinada, where a lackluster beach provides a venue for hundreds of street-based sex workers to earn their livelihood - each encounter fetching them a meager amount of Rs 10 to 30 (US$1 = Rs 46).
With the rise in the number of hot spots and sex workers, the opposition against sex work has grown among general community, local welfare organization and some political parties. This pressured the law-enforcing mechanism to act, which only causes harassment to the community. Added to this is the fact that these areas are also the hunting grounds for goons who exploit these women. They not only coerce them into servicing them and taking on other clients, they also take away their earnings. There are many instances where the women face physical violence at their hands.
Given this scenario, it was getting extremely difficult to reach out to the community because repeated raids by the police had pushed them either into hibernation or migration. Now it was for the community, and the people working with its health concerns, to respond to the situation. Thus began the collectivization of sex workers that slowly but steadily started fighting for the rights of its members.
Police harassment has come down drastically - the physical torture part of it, at least - and the community is now in a position to talk to some key stakeholders, including people's representatives, government officials and the media.
"I still remember vividly the way we intimidated erring police officers," recalls Satyavati with pride. "On August 17, 2003, six of our girls were beaten up by the local sub-inspector. When we came to know of this, 250 sex workers staged a dharna near the superintendent of police's office and had the sub-inspector suspended."
Supporting the community, CHANGES - in collaboration with the Andhra Pradesh State AIDS Control Society, influential political leaders and other NGOs - lobbied at the state capital, Hyderabad. This resulted in a top police official re-issuing a circular that was gathering dust and had been largely forgotten. The circular clearly stated that voluntary sex work was no crime when it was meant to earn livelihood and any harassment of sex workers falling under this category would be viewed seriously. It also stated that action would be taken against erring police officers. The circular only reiterated the Indian law, which does not proscribe voluntary sex work, but also doesn't legalize it. According to the Indian law, exploiting human beings for the purpose of sex work is a crime. It also prohibits a third party making a living out of it.
The circular gave moral strength to the community as every police station in the district was acquainted with it. Confident, the sex workers approached the district administration and persuaded it to sanction housing sites, ration cards and other benefits of government schemes meant for the weaker sections.
And, yet, members of Velugu Rekha and WISE do not want the profession to be legalized. "Licensing will only isolate us further. I think we are fine as we are; just give us useful projects," says Sai Durga, Secretary, WISE.
And this is exactly what the organization has been doing: addressing the multiple needs of the community. House 'pattas' (title deeds), nutrition, loans, aid to HIV+ sex workers, employment generation, rehabilitation, education for their children, free medical care, old age homes, co-operative stores - every need and every plan is well thought out.
But the greatest achievement of CHANGES has been prevention of trafficking and child prostitution in the district. "When there is a new person in the profession, we know. So, we keep track and, if it is a young girl under 18 or if the girl is brought into sex work forcibly, we ensure that she goes back home. In case she does not want to, we either put her in our bridge school or hand her over to the Women and Child Welfare Department," explains Sujatha.
"This kind of tracking is very important in places like Peddapuram, which have a thriving sex industry," says Veeramsetty Naga Srinivas, Project Manager for CHANGES in Peddapuram town.
"There was a phase when sex workers were projected as the main cause for spread of HIV. People forget that sex workers themselves are victims and stand to lose their lives," recalls Sanyasi Rao. But CHANGES considers HIV prevention and care as only one aspect of their initiatives. A co-operative store managed by sex workers themselves is one among the many.
Radhika, a sex worker, recalls: "It was not in the very distant past that we were considered a slur on society. We were ashamed of what we were doing. No longer! We have a voice now, we have leaders. We are as much citizens as the rest." Not just citizens, but citizens with rights.