I started my last day in India at a Bangalore community center called Swathi’s House—a drop-in center for sex workers that’s part of a foundation-supported HIV prevention project called Avahan. The community members gave me a traditional Indian welcome, called an aarti. It was a day to celebrate, because the program is being handed off to the government for long-term support. But the real driver of success are the members themselves.
The center is run by a remarkable community-based organization called Swathi Mahila Sangha, which has approximately 8,500 members out of a population of about 19,000 sex workers in Bangalore. They provide counseling, medical help, HIV prevention training and a micro-finance bank. All of this is done with a cadre of peer educators and outreach workers. It’s a great model for self-help and empowerment.
I was touched by the community’s honesty and resolve—and their entrepreneurial spirit. Roughly half of the members now have savings accounts and their micro-finance bank has $800,000 USD in assets, with a recovery rate of nearly 100%. (I think most U.S. banks would be envious.) Thanks, in part, to their efforts, rates of HIV and sexually-transmitted diseases are down and the woman I talked with spoke of no longer feeling alone and helpless. They were proud of being able to keep their money, instead of remaining victims to “the thugs and the goons.”
Even though they are still a marginalized group, the sex workers are succeeding in advocating for their own rights and are enthusiastic about getting even more sex workers signed up and involved. There’s also been tremendous progress at the government level tackling the problem of HIV infection head-on, and Avahan and community centers like Swathi House are great examples.
I spent the last part of my trip at a gathering of a number of business leaders and philanthropists. I was the guest of two remarkable individuals. Azim Premji is the founder of Wipro and one of Asia’s biggest philanthropists. Ratan Tata is one of the country’s foremost business leaders and a member of the Tata family well known throughout Indian industry and philanthropy. They were nice enough to invite me to make a few remarks at the beginning, but mostly it was an opportunity to listen and learn about their perspectives on philanthropy in India.
While the circumstances for giving are unique in India, it was amazing just how much their discussion sounded like the conversations I’ve had with wealthy business people and philanthropists in the U.S. and elsewhere. A few common themes emerged. People agreed it was often easier to make the money than to give it away in a thoughtful way. There was a huge feeling of personal satisfaction in their philanthropic work, and a deep sense of societal obligation to give back. With so many problems to address, deciding where to engage and how to do it weighs heavily on their minds.
The group decided they wanted to get together again to learn from one another and talk through issues of common interest. That was fantastic. India is in a new phase of its long history of charitable giving, and I am certain many of these families are going to lead the way by doing remarkable things.
It’s been a very productive and moving three days. I’m grateful I had the chance to meet with so many amazing people in a short time. I’ll post some thoughts on the trip as a whole as well as some video the week of June 11. There’s a lot to reflect on.