| Gender | Society |

For Dignity and Respect

Sandhya Mary

18/08/2005 women clad

Women clad in brown churidars and green jackets collecting garbage is a common sight in Muvattupuzha, a town in Kerala. They look happy and confident. They display amazing enthusiasm for their work. After a while you can see the same women on the shores of the Muvattupuzha river washing bed linen with the same happy countenance. You may wonder why there should be such joy over waste removal and laundry-work. In order to understand their delight, one has to know their background. The people who chat with them now are the same ones who used to ostracise them because they were sex workers.

Though numerous attempts have been made to rehabilitate sex workers across India, not many have succeeded. This success story comes from the Resource Centre for Training and Counseling (RCTC) in Muvattupuzha. The group, headed by Shafeena Vinovin, is successfully engaged in the rehabilitation of town's sex workers with active support from the local administration. Now RCTC successfully runs a laundry unit and a waste removal unit with former sex workers as its members.

But it was not at all easy for Shafeena and her associates. As elsewhere, she had to face the wrath of the society from the beginning. After completing her masters in social work, Shafeena started RCTC under the guidance of the state AIDS Control Society. The main objective of the project was the prevention of AIDS. Naturally the target groups were sex workers, their clients and homosexuals. Distribution of condoms (among clients through sex workers) and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) were the main activities of the group.

In 1999, when Shafeena decided to find alternative employment for the sex workers, conservative Muvattupuzha raised its collective eyebrows. They turned against Shafeena thinking that she was promoting sex work. Some treated her with contempt for working among sex workers.

Another major problem was that the sex workers of the locality didn't show any interest in the project. Shafeena was not one of them. A project initiated by an outsider couldn't evoke any interest in them. "Though we started the project in 1999, it remained inactive for almost two years. The sex workers - for whom the project was meant - didn't pay much attention to our AIDS prevention campaigns. The condom distribution programme became a total failure. It was difficult for the sex workers to force clients to use condoms. They were afraid such insistence would harm them, their clients and ultimately their livelihood. Though these women were often affected with STDs, they didn't have any say in the matter. As nothing positive was happening, I even thought of withdrawing from the project. But as the local municipal authorities began to support us, the picture slowly changed," says Shafeena.

She approached the municipal authorities with her project and luckily the chairman and councillors understood the positive changes that RCTC could bring about in the town. Shafeena then organised many meetings with sex workers of the locality. Representatives of the local town administration and health department were also present. Support from the authorities was a major motivating force for sex workers. For them it was a new experience. Now they could talk and even argue face to face with the authorities. Doctors too began to treat them as human beings. Says Aswathi, an active member of the group: "Earlier doctors used to scold us. Hospital staff too got irritated by the sight of us. Many times when we went to doctors with STDs, they refused to treat us. They would say, `you stop this trade, only then will you get cured.' But there is a drastic change in their approach now. They treat us like any other patient."

The project was back on the rails. There were many interactive sessions. Sex workers began raising many relevant issues in such meetings. "We want to get out of this profession. But nobody is ready to give us another job. If anybody provides us with the means to earn our livelihood, we will happily stop this way of living," says a worker. RCTC submitted a proposal to the municipality to rehabilitate sex workers. The Taluk hospital was in need of hands to wash and clean used bed linen and other clothes. The authorities entrusted this task to those women who had quit sex work to lead a normal life. Thus the rehabilitation process became the second stream of RCTC's functioning. In 2002, the group was registered under Kudumbasree with the name `Swaruma' (Kudumbasree is a Kerala government scheme meant for grassroot level development. The scheme aims to make each family self sufficient mainly through women.) "As we became a Kudumbasree unit, we got more social recognition. We received a subsidy of Rs 50,000 from Kudumbasree and Bank of India gave us a loan of Rs 50,000, despite the fact that these women didn't possess any supporting documents," adds Shafeena.

But income from the laundry unit was meagre in comparison to what they used to earn earlier. It became difficult for them to make both ends meet. Says Shafeena, "They used to earn Rs 500 to Rs 1,000 per day. But now they couldn't even secure enough money to eat. We had to tackle this problem. It was not easy for us to start any self-employment scheme that needed investment. That would have become a burden on the group. So we thought of something other than laundry unit that required only labour. At that time the waste management system of the municipality was not functioning properly. Thus the idea of waste removal from the town area emerged."

Launching garbage collection was not as easy as the laundry unit. In order to start the laundry unit, they had to talk only to the hospital authorities. But to implement the waste removal scheme, they had to convince the entire town. Here too assistance from the municipal authorities was of great value to the RCTC. They jointly organised an awareness campaign among the shop owners and town folk. Says municipal chairman M A Saheer: "The successful implementation of laundry unit gave us confidence. We entered every shop and establishment to seek people's support. The campaign was a real success. Now everybody in the town genuinely supports this project". The effect of the campaign was quite amazing. People, who used to treat these women as untouchables, now began to accept them as part of society. Shafeena says: "We could convince the people that sex workers are also capable of leading a normal life under favourable conditions. The change in attitudes is surprising. The public even began to help group members. Vegetable vendors give away excess vegetable to them, hoteliers give them left-over food.." Says a jubilant Khadeeja; "Now people treat us like human beings. They are no longer hostile towards us. When I fell ill, my neighbours took me to hospital. Earlier they wouldn't even touch the gate of my house."

An improvement in the social status is indeed a major achievement for these women. But they have gained something else too through RCTC. A place of their own.a place where they can provide solace to each other, a meeting place for those who have had to face society's wrath. Shafeena elaborates: "What they need most is someone to hear and comfort them. They are frustrated most of the time due to various factors such as isolation from society, ill treatment by authorities and ill health. They are always tense, ready to explode any time. But when they came here, we made them feel that they are not alone and later they began to support each other. Now there is a notable change in their attitude and behaviour. A shoulder to lean on can always work wonders". The municipal chairman, Saheer agrees, "Scuffles in the streets have come down considerably. Now the town is calm in that respect."

Though limited to a single town, the success story of RCTC can be taken as a model for any group, functioning for the welfare of marginalised people. RCTC realised its goals through teamwork and grassroot level functioning. But what made it succeed was the support of local administrative and social system. For Shafeena, the Swaruma group is a dream-come true.

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In 1999, when Shafeena decided to find alternative employment for the sex workers, conservative Muvattupuzha raised its collective eyebrows. They turned against Shafeena thinking that she was promoting sex work. Some treated her with contempt for working among sex workers.


Though limited to a single town, the success story of RCTC can be taken as a model for any group, functioning for the welfare of marginalised people


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