Ms Tejaswi Sevekari has been working with Saheli since the last ten years and is now serving as the project director. Saheli is a community based organisation (CBO) of women in sex work in the red-light areas of Pune, working in the areas of HIV prevention and control.
There are 5,000 women in the red light areas of Pune itself. Ms Sevekari shared with us the problems that women in sex work face and their struggle to survive in a world which has not been too fair to them.
What are your areas of intervention in Budhwar Peth?
Our work includes HIV prevention and control through awareness programmes and street plays. We also work with people from different spectrums like police, NGOs and the general public to sensitise them about sexual problems and issues.
We have started a night crèche so that when the women are out, their children are safe and secure. In Bhudhwar Peth, not even a six month old baby is safe.
What happens to women in sex work when they are diagnosed with HIV?
Once a woman is diagnosed with HIV, in most cases she is thrown out of the brothel by the gharwali (brothel-keeper). There are many HIV +ve women who are living and dying on the streets.
Do you provide any services to women living with HIV?
We run a support group for (65) women living with HIV. This group provides nutritional supplements to women. We provide counselling to women to boost their morale. We can feed them but can’t anything about their residence because of our limited infrastructure. Since they are prone to infections, it’s difficult for them to work and support themselves.
Prostitution should be legalised… What is the majority opinion amongst women working here?
Almost 99 per cent of the women here feel that it shouldn’t be legalised. They’ve had very bad experiences with the law. Women here want protection by law. Law in India is very complicated. We are hanging somewhere in the middle where prostitution is neither legal nor illegal.
Our government is very impressed with the Thailand model where prostitution is legal but they fail to see the numerous services that their government provides to women. If the Indian law provides services and not further stigmatisation, then the women agree with legalisation.
Do you keep a watch on illegal trafficking in the red light areas?
Since we are working with the local people, we cannot directly do that. But we are secretly working with reporters and keep them informed when any such incident comes to our knowledge. The reporters work with the police to catch the offenders and rescue women from brothels.
The age-group of women in this profession is 13-45 years. Their life expectancy is as low as 40-50 years.
Many believe that prostitution is a necessary evil in the society. What is your opinion?
In my opinion prostitution shouldn’t be there. Poverty and secondary status of women in our society are the root causes which force a woman to use her body to earn money. If prostitution was necessary to keep the women in the cities safe, my question is have rape cases declined?
What is the keyword in your organisation’s philosophy of women’s welfare?
Self-sustenance – empowering them to become self-reliant. Even after having gone through the tough battles of life, our women are still going strong. We are using their strength for their development and I’m sure that it will work wonders for them.
Our dream is to start a co-operative store run and managed by women in sex work.
- Interview by Amita Makhija
21st July, 2006