The status of female sex workers in Kerala was very pathetic and wretched before starting the HIV/AIDS interventions among them by Kerala State AIDS Control Society under National AIDS Control Programme (NACP) during the late 1990’s. They were victims of extreme human right violations due to the vulnerabilities they faced from their surroundings. They were browbeaten, exploited, harassed, tortured or abused by their own clients, police, gangsters, and so called moralists in the society simply because of their status as sex workers.

It was a herculean task before the NGOs and CBOs working among them for HIV prevention to create an enabled environment with reduced disregard and distinction for the smooth implementation of targeted intervention components like behaviour change communication, condom programming, STI management, etc.

Now the situation is not as serious as used to be in the beginning, due to the strenuous mainstreaming efforts made by Kerala State AIDS Control Society and the NGOs/CBOs involved at various levels in the implementation of HIV prevention programme among the core high risk groups. They carefully analyzed the power structures existing in the society and tackled them strategically with appropriate locally framed techniques. The strategy adopted by ‘Sanga Mitra’ (meaning ‘friends of society’) Suraksha Project, Thrissur is a classical example for such locally framed techniques in tackling the stigma and discrimination against sex workers. The Project is implemented by the CBO of Female Sex Workers in the District and was promoted by the NGO named ‘Builders of Nation’.

‘Sakthan Bus Stand’ is one of the major hotspots of Sanga Mitra Suraksha Project from the very beginning itself where more than sixty street-based female sex workers operate. Among them 14 FSWs were totally abandoned and deserted by their family solely due to their sex worker status. They sojourned in the Bus Stand itself as they have no other shelter or accommodations. All of them were victims of awful stigma and discrimination from the society. The shopkeepers, police, trade union workers, etc. in the bus stand exhibited exorbitant hostility towards them. ‘They considered us as nasty creatures, they never allowed us to enter teashops or hotels to eat food or even stand in front of the shops’ Omana, one of the sufferers of Society’s hostility said. ‘They feared that our presence in the shop would lose their customers. Many time, shop owners splashed boiled water on our face and body, when we opposed to leave from the shop’ she continued. ‘At that time, tea shop/hotels in the bus stand never allowed us to eat food in their plate and glass. They ladled food in leaves or in plastic papers and tea or coffee in coconut shells instead of plates and glasses. At the same time they charged more money for their services’ Sunila, another victim divulged. ‘We felt ourselves as wretched and worst. We detested our execrable life. We considered ourselves as rubbish to the terra and we tried our best to hide from the mainstream society. We felt a kind of enemy-feeling in our psyche towards the society’ Geethambika, another FSW of Sakthan bus-stand added.

‘Because of the extreme antagonism of the shop owners and other habitual in the bus stand, we were not able to work at the hotspot for HIV prevention activities and contact these FSWs for behaviour change towards safe sex practices’ Ms. Mini, Project Manager of Sangha Mitra Suraksha Project said. ‘We adopted several strategies, including face to face interaction with each stakeholder, political interventions, media interventions, etc. to resolve the issue, but all failed. However, from these exercises we realized that people consider sex workers as rebellious and harmful to the Society. From this apprehension, we tried to adopt a strategy to make them valuable and credible to the Society. As an innovation, we persuaded some of the sex workers staying in the Bus stand to clean the bus stand premises, particularly the foreground of shops and other institutions of the Bus Stand every morning. Sangha Mitra provided broomstick and other requisites for cleaning the bus stand’ she continued.

The strategy was successful and the shop owners appreciated the new role of the sex workers in the bus stand. Some of them provided tea and snacks free of cost as token for their service. Meanwhile, Sangha Mitra, with the help of NGO, approached the Thrissur Corporation to provide financial support to the bus stand cleaning programme. In fact, it was a deliberate strategy to institutionalize the cleaning programme and brand the sex workers as official cleaners of the Bus Stand. The Corporation approved Rs. 5000 per month to the CBO for cleaning the Bus Stand every day. It enabled the CBO to conduct an official inauguration of the bus stand cleaning programme that helped in attracting the attention of media and the public. The CBO distributes the allotted fund by the Corporation equally to all the FSWs designated to clean the stand in the respective month. The Corporation authority is also satisfied with their performance and hence hiked the remuneration to the CBO for cleaning to Rs.12500/- per month. They are also planning to entrust additional tasks to these women for the maintenance of cleanliness in the City.

‘Now we are an indispensible part of Sakthan Bus Stand. We no longer are restricted or prohibited in the locality’ Sunila opines. ‘Even though we are practicing sex work in the Bus Stand, the shop owners and other customers of the bus stand consider us as normal human beings. Now we feel value for ourselves and hence we ourselves restrict public soliciting in the bus stand’ she continued. The life style of the sex workers in the bus stand has also undergone considerable change. They themselves dispelled their shabby appearance and none of them are staying in the bus stand at present. Almost all of them are now living in rented houses. All of them are actively involved in the activities of ‘Sangha Mitra’ and Suraksha Project. ‘We want to reframe the lives our peers’ they unanimously enunciates.


Management Support by:
Hindustan Latex Family Planning Promotion Trust (HLFPPT)



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