During my trip to India in May, I visited a community center in Bangalore named Swathi’s House—a drop-in center for sex workers that’s part of an HIV prevention project called Avahan that is supported by the Indian government. Even though they are a marginalized group, the women are successfully advocating for their rights and are enthusiastic about getting more people involved in their efforts to stop AIDS. We all have to do more to provide other options for these women—but it’s inspiring that even despite the hard lives they have they can come together to protect themselves and help others. My visit made it incredibly clear to me that the real drivers of Avahan’s success are the members themselves—members like Anu Swami who shares her story here.
I have been a sex worker since I was 13 years-old. I am from Chennai, but the woman who bought me took me to Mumbai. I had no meaning or control in my life. I had no idea about HIV, I just knew that I had to earn money and this was the way to do it. I had no mother, no father. I thought that this is all there is to my life.
But then I met my husband—he was not a client, but he used to accompany his friends to such places. He took me to his home but did not tell his parents about what I had been doing. Even so I felt that it is very important to earn money and respect. My husband tried to look after his mother and me, but we wondered how to pay the rent. I knew I had a way to earn money, so I went back to what I knew.
The Avahan workers used to go door-to-door, do HIV tests, and explain the causes of HIV. This worried me. For so long I had been in this business and had no idea that such a dangerous disease could be in my body. They would come every week, distribute condoms, counsel us. I realized there were many like me who did not know about HIV. We became a group.
I am eternally grateful because my whole life either someone has used me or taken advantage of me or fooled me. But the Aastha Project changed my life by educating us about HIV and telling us about our legal rights.
The Avahan staff convinced me that I should talk to other women and help improve their lives as mine had improved. So I slowly became a part of Aastha. Within Aastha they gave me the role of community volunteer and I was paid every month. I felt I had been saved from a grave disease and now I could help other sisters from falling prey to the disease. I never knew that I could speak in front of so many people and help educate them.
Today I am fighting the battle against HIV and teaching others to fight it too. We have done street plays to show people different ways that they can contract HIV. Today everyone in these areas knows about HIV. I’m helping sex workers understand that no matter how much money a customer gives, we need to take care of our own health. Many customers say that they will pay more to have sex without a condom, but no matter what we must say no. If we have to earn a living, we must fight HIV, and only then can we live healthy in this world. The strength and faith that Aastha has given us helps us through many challenges.
I have been with Avahan for six years. I began as a Community Volunteer, then became a Peer Educator. We used to have a lot of crime in our area, and many rape cases. But I was fearless and lodged complaints with the police. As a peer advocate, I have additional skills and knowledge related to legal literacy and can help women deal with the police or the law.
People in the community respect me. They say that ever since Anu came into our fold our work has got meaning and she does her work very well. Even though I lived very far, I covered all the areas in our program to help. I was voted in as the president of the Aastha Parivaar, the federated body of all CBOs under the Aastha project.
We aren’t controlled by other people anymore. We feel we are a large committee, whose voices will be heard. We can make a difference.