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Seshu has been working with sex workers and their children in Sangli since 1986. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Seshu has been working with sex workers and their children in Sangli since 1986. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

Dignity to sex work

Meena Seshu's lasting contribution to the women's and human rights movements

The office of Sangram—officially called Sampada Grameen Mahila Sanstha—is a brick-lined, multi-roomed, single-storey affair with a pond in the middle that helps keep the premises cool. On a Sunday in September, a group of over 60 men and women—clerical recruits of the Maharashtra secretariat—file into the meeting room. Large windows fill the room with sunlight, even as a drizzle falls outside. The weather is not the only paradox in the semi-urban township of Sangli, around 370km south-east of Mumbai.

Sitting by the window is 52-year-old Meena Seshu. She is dressed in a loose cotton kurta and salwar, spectacles perched on her nose, and in the three decades that she has lived in Sangli, she has kept her hair, now greying, very short. “I look like nothing on earth that these folks have seen before," says Seshu, the general secretary of the organization. Not that Sangram employees seem to care.

Male sex workers Sudhir and Reshma (the latter is a jogappa and belongs to the sect of transgender devadasis from Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh who are followers of the goddess Yellamma) talk about Muskan, one of Sangram’s five collectives, registered in 2010. Each collective deals with a separate issue; Muskan works on issues related to men who have sex with men, such as HIV/AIDS prevention, and helps in the mobilization against Section 377, a law that criminalizes non penile-vaginal intercourse. “You need to know that we exist. Man-woman love isn’t the only sort of love. Emotion is like the air around us. We can’t see it, but it’s there," says 30-year-old Sudhir. Kiran and Sangeeta, sex workers who are part of the collective Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad (VAMP), the first collective created by Sangram in 1996, talk about how being part of a collective has helped them find dignity. A recruit asks them, “Why don’t you choose another line of work?"

“Because this is my work, just like yours will soon be at the Mantralaya," replies 30-year-old Sangeeta. The recruit is taken aback at the comparison and it is clear that many in the room share her disapproval. Seshu, who has been quiet all this while, jumps in. She talks about the human cost of moralistic attitudes. Violence at the hands of criminals and policemen alike, the lack of legal and state protection, the discrimination faced by children of sex workers at the hands of teachers and fellow students in municipal schools, and society’s indifference to the health needs of sex workers—these are only a few of the challenges that women like Sangeeta and Kiran face, she tells them. Seshu speaks of VAMP’s successes, such as the decreased incidence of unwanted pregnancies and HIV transmission from mother to child, the ubiquitous use of condoms and, above all, getting the women to think of themselves as people who are worthy of rights.

Not one person in the room fails to nod.

Over the years, Seshu has had to interact with government officials at many levels, from the Centre and state to the gram panchayat. “At one point, we would take out a morcha (protest march) at the drop of a hat," she laughs.

She moved to Sangli in 1986 when her husband got a job in the Marathi newspaper Kesari. Seshu, who has a degree in social welfare from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, initially worked with Stree Mukti Sangharsh, the women’s wing of the peasants’ collective Shramik Mukti Dal, which tackled issues related to the land rights of women (deserted women, widows, women who were abandoned).

By the late 1980s, AIDS, or Acquired Immuno Deficiency Syndrome, had become a well-known acronym, but it was largely perceived as an urban ailment. Then, one of the first rural cases of HIV came to light, in Sangli: A woman was given infected blood during surgery at a government hospital; there was no other blood available at the time. One of the doctors who “hotfooted it to Sangli" was Vijay Thakur, who convinced Seshu it would be catastrophic if the virus was not checked within the sex worker community. Dr Thakur was a former project director of Project Saheli, which aimed to prevent HIV/AIDS among sex workers, started by the Indian Health Organization.

Sangli’s sex worker community, then and now, lives and works largely out of the Gokulnagar and Swaroop Talkies localities. Truck drivers, ferrying goods on the state and national roads, are frequent clients. The community was already well acquainted with the deadly virus—women were returning from Mumbai to die in their native villages, says Seshu. But, “in Gokulnagar, nobody was using condoms. The condoms that the government was giving through its family planning programme were bad. We would open the packet, and the ring around the condoms would fall off. How were people to use it, though their lives depended on it?"

Seshu managed to enlist 16 sex workers, who became peer educators. By 1995, this number had increased to 150. The following year, they registered themselves as a collective, and, by 2011, VAMP was running peer education programmes in eight districts in Maharashtra, and had over 5,000 sex workers as members. Today, a few of these programmes—in Solapur, Kolhapur, and Pune district’s Baramati—have branched out into independent community-based organizations.

In 1992 the Union government formed the National Aids Control Organization (Naco) and, through it, the National Aids Control Programme (NACP) that allocated budgets, laid down strategies, and worked with local groups. Attitudes towards the sex worker community, however, didn’t change much. “When I would say that I worked with sex workers, I faced a lot of stigma. I’m not a hijra, a sex worker, a Dalit or a Muslim woman, but a highly privileged and articulate woman. Can you imagine what they dealt with?" asks Seshu.

Meenakshi Kamble, a member of VAMP, sums up how the collective has changed her life. “We didn’t know about our rights, so we would take the abuse and the beatings. We didn’t even know that when the police raided our premises, a woman cop had to be present. They’d just come and pull us by our hair. Then, we started using the rights language with them. Earlier, the police, criminals, and even our clients would ask for free sex, and we didn’t have the power to negotiate. Now, we speak about the money we are owed for our work."

Geetanjali Misra, co-founder and executive director of Creating Resources for Empowerment in Action (Crea), a feminist human rights organization, first met Seshu in 1995, while working as a programme officer at Ford Foundation, a US-based grants agency which funded Sangram a decade ago. “Meena challenged my ideas about sex workers. She asked me, “How can we empower sex workers if we don’t let them talk about what they need? Who are we to tell them what to do?" says Misra, referring to Seshu’s game-changing approach to sex worker rights, at a time when most non-governmental organizations and activists only sought to rehabilitate them.

Sangram’s growth has been organic: VAMP highlighted the need to work with rural women—the wives of men who would visit sex workers—and Vidrohi Mahila Manch (VMM), a collective of rural women, was formed in 1997. Sangram initially employed 54 of them as health workers to run a district-wide campaign against AIDS through primary health centres to educate their peers on the importance of regular check-ups, and spread awareness about HIV transmission from mothers to unborn children. In 2006, Seshu set up Casam, the Centre for Advocacy on Stigma and Marginalization, to try and influence regional, national and international policies on sex worker rights.

In 2004, Sangram began working with the children of sex workers, eventually home-schooling a few of them, even opening Mitra, a hostel in Nipani, Karnataka, in 2009, along with VAMP. “Children of sex workers have a high drop-out rate. No one is asking if they’ve done well in school, how many marks they’ve received, whether they will go to college or not," rues Seshu, who is now focused on building the lives of these children.

Robin Chaurasiya, who runs Kranti, a home for girls from Mumbai’s red-light area, explains the importance of this. “Children of sex workers face so much discrimination in schools and society, and for them to see how their mothers are empowered to fight their own battles by organizations like Sangram is great, but these children also need a safe space where they aren’t facing endless discrimination. This is what Sangram offers them."

Clearly, Seshu has many things on her plate. But what binds all the programmes Sangram is associated with is the perspective she brings to her work. As she puts it, “(Much of this) work had nothing to do with HIV, but it is part of our larger politics of what we dream for a society; what world we want our children to live in."

HOW TO GIVE

MAIN SPONSORS

Levi Strauss Foundation, American Jewish World Service, United Nations Development Programme, Funds for Global Human Rights, South Asia Women’s Fund, Government of India.

BIGGEST NEED

A corpus of funds from India to be used for the children of sex workers.

A DONATION OF 10,000 CAN

Buy groceries for the Mitra hostel, which houses 30 children, for a month.

VOLUNTEERS CAN HELP

Teach children of sex workers at the home school.

CONTACT

sangramsanstha@gmail.com

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