The Power of Community: Sex Workers Unite to Fight For Their Rights

Robert Madore, Pathfinder's Human Resources Manager, recently visited one of Pathfinder's projects in India. He shares his thoughts on seeing Pathfinder's Mukta project in Pune, India.

On a recent trip to Pune, India I was fortunate to have the opportunity to witness firsthand the impact of Pathfinder’s work through the MUKTA project. MUKTA is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and is part of the Avahan India AIDS Initiative, which targets more than 25,000 female sex workers and men who have sex with men in the Indian state of Maharashtra to reduce their risks and vulnerabilities towards STIs and HIV.

The trip to the main brothel area in Pune, India’s 7th largest city, was eye opening unto itself. The trip began with a drive through the nicer and more upscale neighborhoods of Pune’s newer downtown, filled with IT firms, call centers, and assorted colleges and universities. As we headed deeper into the heart of Pune’s old city, the roads became narrower and more congested, the buildings older and more ramshackle, and the casually strewn mounds of garbage became larger and more widespread. Eventually this gradual decline into greater and greater poverty led deep into the heart of Pune’s old city, where India’s second largest brothel area is situated, housing thousands of commercial sex workers. 

One of them said to me: “Before the community-based organization, I was just dead inside, hopeless. Now I have this group to belong to, getting respect from the police, my brothel owner, and other sex workers.” There is nothing glamorous or appealing about the commercial sex trade in India, forget any images you might have of Amsterdam’s red light district or the neon lit nighttime streets of the Las Vegas Strip. The sex industry in Pune consists of several rundown streets of crumbling low story buildings with small groups of seemingly apathetic and poverty stricken women milling about in doorways, wearing mostly traditional saris or other Indian dress, waiting for customers to approach them. Prostitution is not illegal in India, but what is illegal is making money off of the sex workers such as acting as a pimp or owning a brothel. However, while making money off of sex workers is officially illegal, it is unofficially sanctioned due to corruption. In fact, ironically, it is the sex workers themselves who face the greatest police harassment, while the brothel owners continue their profitable operations with relative impunity. The issue of unlawful police harassment has been one of the broader concerns that has been tackled by the MUKTA project. Through partnership with local police authorities and an innovative education campaign, harassment has recently been greatly diminished.

I was taken to a community training center (CTC) that lies in the heart of the brothel area. The training center is financed by Pathfinder and run by local NGO partners supported by Pathfinder. Despite its dilapidated façade, the inside of the community training center is cheery and well-lit. Informative posters cover the walls, along with pictures of different group meetings of sex workers, Pathfinder staff and partners, donors and government officials. The main space of the CTC was occupied with about 15-20 mostly young women and girls, with a few older women of indeterminate age: 55? 60? The group was having their “board meeting” for the community-based organization (CBO), the founding of which Pathfinder had helped facilitate. The community-based organization was formed to create solidarity and support among commercial sex workers. The group was meeting to discuss the current direction of their CBO, such as the topic of running a beauty parlor within the community training center, providing a new way for the members to earn a living instead of through sex work.

I was introduced to the group by the local Pathfinder staff who accompanied me. The group were unsurprised to see a foreigner in their midst, as several foreigners had visited in the past, including Bill Gates himself. After a quick explanation that I was an International HR Manager from Pathfinder’s US headquarters, an open question and answer session quickly sprang up, with a translator bridging the Hindi-English language barrier. I asked about their ages, and despite many of the group members seeming very young, they all answered that they were at least 20, with most responding that they were in their mid-to-late 20s. Later I was told that many of them were actually much younger, but were hesitant to share the fact that they were actually under 18. We also discussed more personal details of their lives, with most people willing and eager to share.

The stories of how they had ended up as sex workers were heartbreaking: some were kidnapped while playing in front of their family homes, others were sold by their own parents to pay off debts, still others were duped into coming to India from Nepal or Bangladesh for “good paying factory work.” Regardless of the tragic circumstances, there were several common denominators: the girls needed to work a certain period of time for their “owners” in order to recoup the investment of purchasing them and there was great shame and stigma attached to the fact that they were engaged in the sex trade, making it nearly impossible to return to their former family communities. They were stuck in a vicious circle of having no easy options besides sex work once their 4-5 year “indenture period” was finished. They were largely uneducated, socially shunned and the only reality they knew how to exist in was that of the brothels. A further and perhaps more pernicious pressure was the fact that the women usually sent home a large portion of their earnings, keeping their families out of total destitution in rural villages across India and in neighboring countries.

The more I learned of their situation, the more depressed and heartbroken you would think I would have become. However, that was not the case as I began to learn about their newfound sense of solidarity, self-respect and empowerment that came from their interaction with Pathfinder, its local NGO partners and, most importantly, their own community-based organization. They were bubbly and optimistic, thinking about new futures outside of the brutal, futures that they had never before imagined might be possible within the crushing life of the brothels. One of them said to me: “Before the community-based organization, I was just dead inside, hopeless. Now I have this group to belong to, getting respect from the police, my brothel owner, and other sex workers.” Even for those who may choose to remain sex workers, they were now armed with knowledge of STIs and HIV/AIDs, provisioned with free MUKTA condoms and the confidence to insist that their customers use them, access to regular testing and treatment, etc.

All of the women were interested in learning more: computers skills, beautification skills, and English. I shared that I was a teacher for many years, including teaching English in Asia, and asked if they wanted a quick English lesson. They excitedly said yes and so I quickly launched into one of my easiest, high-energy lessons about basic greetings and responses. Almost everyone dove into the exercise with enthusiasm, making me think I was teaching a room full of young teenagers, rather than 20-somethings who were 10 year veterans of the sex industry. Eventually, even the more shy girls overcame their initial fears and we were soon all laughing and learning together. An impromptu photo session was called for and we spent 20 minutes posing for various group photos.

I left the community training center with a smile on my face and a wonderful feeling in my heart after witnessing firsthand the awesome impact that Pathfinder and its partners have been able to achieve through the CTC and other outreach efforts, making me feel privileged to have had even a minor role in supporting such work. What really left me most excited and fulfilled was seeing what this growing and self-sustaining community of sex workers has begun to create for itself and the once-locked doors to brighter futures that these remarkable women will now begin to be able to open for themselves and for each other.

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