Government and NGO welfare programs across India are notorious for their lack of continuity. Most initiatives die when the funding dries up, and the good work accomplished by a group of committed people is lost.
Vanitha ('woman' in Malayalam) Society, formed by a group of sex workers in Kozhikode district in northern Kerala, breaks this pattern. Registered in 2000, Vanitha Society took over from the Centre for Social Research and Development (CSRD), in Kozhikode, which had initiated a very successful program for HIV/AIDS prevention among sex workers in 1997. The CSRD's Partnership for Sexual Health (PSH) project - which had the Kerala State AIDS Control Society (KSACS) and the State Management Agency (SMA) providing management assistance - was the first program aimed at sex workers in Kerala. The project was funded by NACO.
Sex workers in Kerala generally fear government welfare schemes, which they associate with being thrown into a rehabilitation centre for a few days. PSH's association with KSACS, then known as the Kerala State AIDS Cell, led sex workers to believe that this was a mechanism to locate them and put them in prison. With perseverance and awareness generation, the program was eventually well received.
Thus, when the project entered its final stages, sex workers who had benefited realized that it was important for them to continue the work. "We were ignorant about sexual health until we became part of the CSRD project. If this education stopped with us, the ultimate aim of HIV/AIDS prevention would be defeated. So, we decided to continue the work on our own," says Sarojini, Secretary, Vanitha Society.
For the last four years, Vanitha Society - a group of semi-literate women - has been spearheading an HIV/AIDS campaign. They invite experts to conduct seminars on issues of interest to the women, hold awareness meetings, organize medical camps and condom distribution programs, and run income-generation schemes. Running a voluntary counseling and testing centre (VCTC), located in government hospitals and medical colleges, is an integral part of these efforts.
Sarojini and six other women pooled in all their savings and bought seven cents of land (100=1 acre) in Shanthi Nagar, Kozhikode. "We have 139 members [mostly in the 25-45 age group], 40 of who are from Shanthi Nagar itself," says Chandrika, President of Vanitha. The organization has an office, clinic and a telephone booth. The seven women who established Vanitha form the committee that oversees its functioning. These women had received training under the PSH project as peer educators (members from the target group who are trained to encourage the group to adopt good practices).
Awareness generation efforts among sex workers in Kerala is complicated by the fact that - unlike Mumbai, Delhi or Kolkata - there are no recognized red light areas and it is difficult to identify members. Being a port town, though, Kozhikode has long had visitors in search of short-term marriages and sex work. According to Sarojini, this district, with an area of 2,344 sq km and a population of 2,878,498 people, has 475 to 500 permanent sex workers. Of these 350-400 are street-based sex workers and most of the rest cater to a higher class of clientele. The latter are particularly difficult to locate and organise.
The street-based sex workers of Kozhikode are struggling with social ostracism, lack of education, diffidence and fear of government welfare programs. Thus condom programming, an important component of HIV/AIDS prevention programs, was difficult to execute. The sex workers were not aware of their right to demand the use of safety measures, and even if they did, they rarely had the power to negotiate condom use.
Following in the footsteps of CSRD, Vanitha initiated a range of activities to spread awareness of HIV/AIDS prevention among its members. The office functions from 10 am to 5 pm everyday. A one-time membership fee of Rs 10 is charged at the time of admission. Members get themselves checked once every fortnight in the clinic attached to the office. A skin specialist from the medical college attends to patients regularly.
Initially, the clinic was open on all days, but now that health complaints have decreased, it only works once in 14 days. Those who need further medical attention are taken to the VCTC at the district hospital and the Kozhikode Medical College. The testing is not forced and is preceded by counseling. After newcomers receive information on HIV/AIDS, they usually opt for HIV testing.
The Vanitha office doubles up as a resting-place for sex workers. It is a shelter from the eyes of the police. Income-generation schemes have also been introduced to equip the organisation to finance itself. Vanitha's programs also receive some finance from the SMA. The society distributes gas cylinders, and runs a phenol-making unit, a tailoring unit and a made-to-order brick-baking unit. It has also started a savings scheme, where members deposit small amounts. Vanitha uses this to obtain bail when the police arrest a member - an occupational hazard for sex workers in India. These activities are crucial to Vanitha's survival because, apart from some grants from SMA, it has no source of funding.
"This is the first time that a community-based organization (CBO) of primary stakeholders has replaced an NGO," says Abraham Mathew, Project Director of SMA. "Working as a support group, they have been able to bring in a sea change in the lives of their community members by applying peer pressure in a positive manner," he adds.
Zubaida, a member, says, "I feel we are doing something purposeful. I was ostracized by my family and society, but now my family members come to see me here and we communicate regularly." Members of Vanitha do not face social ostracism based on their occupation. The fact that a number of the members hail from the area could be one reason, and the strength of their commitment another.
Sarojini says that Vanitha's ultimate aim is to bring all sex workers in the district within its fold. "We have five peer educators, each one bringing in two new sex workers every month. Our ultimate objective is to become a large family of all sex workers in the district, taking care of their needs and providing them with protection. We are also looking at overall empowerment, including the education of our children. We are illiterate; our children must not be," she says firmly.