Living with Dignity
Project implemented by Durbar Mahila Samanvaya Samiti
Kolkata , West Bengal, India - April 2011
Project funded by the NACO, Government of India - with financial assistance from the World Bank
Limiting the spread of HIV-AIDS has been the biggest success story for International Cooperation in the past decade. The challenge continues to be immense and much needed urgent work still remains.
Kolkata, a metropolis of 15 million people, is the capital of the Eastern Indian State of West Bengal. A city of contrasts, Kolkata is, at the same time, fascinating and dreadful, inviting and alienating, chaotic and calm. Here, development did take place but the city has been struggling to cope with the ever increasing number of immigrants from poorer states. Immigrant labour and poverty in this city have boosted the demand for and the offer of sex workers .
Sonagachi is the main red light area of Kolkata. The low levels of literacy among sex workers in Sonagachi, combined with low awareness on HIV-AIDS and safe sex, makes them a high risk group for HIV infections. The women of Bengal are known for their energy, dynamism and determination. In Sonagachi, a group of self-aware, primarily women, sex workers came together to establish the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Samiti and they started working to improve their living conditions. They received funding from a programme of the Indian Government on the prevention of HIV-AIDS. And they started a campaign for the prevention and treatment of HIV and the practise of safe sex. They teach sex workers and their clients about the ways and means to protect themselves and the other from HIV-AIDS.
The Darbar Mahila Samanvaya Samiti is an example of when the expression of knowledge and solidarity in one collective voice can help even the most vulnerable and socially exploited persons to start recognizing and exercising their rights. And when they do so, there is a sense of more dignity and security among the entire community.
"None of us knew our rights. Only when we made the committee and came together, did we realise what our rights are" says Bharati Dey, a sex worker who now is an outreach worker raising awareness on rights and HIV among other sex workers .
"Whenever we have problems, we know we can count on our organisation to solve it", says another sex worker.
"Sex workers, who are HIV positive regularly come to get their medical check ups, take medicines and condoms." says a doctor of the government funded health unit.
"I am an HIV positive person. First I thought it was a deadly disease but now I take medicines and know that I can live long so long as I regularly take medicines and precautions. I share my knowledge on safe sex with other sex workers so that at least they do not get AIDS", says an HIV positive sex worker.
Additional information about the projectEdit
In 1995, the Government of India launched an HIV intervention program to reduce and prevent the incidence of STD and HIV/ AIDS in Sonagachi. The intervention programme included health services for treating Sexually Transmitted Diseases, building education and awareness among sex workers and the distribution of condoms. The outreach workers for implementing this programme were the sex workers themselves. They were trained to spread awareness and information about HIV/ AIDS and to help co-workers access medical services. The roles and responsibilities of these outreach workers gradually changed. From mere transmitters of information, they became educators and agents of change in their communities. They began forming groups that advocated for a change in attitudes, practices and behaviours among sex workers and the wider community.
One such active group of sex workers came together and formed the Darbar Mahila Samanvaya Committee. In 1999, Durbar took over the management of the STD/HIV Intervention Programme and replicated the approach of the 'Sonagachi Project' also in other red light areas of the city. The Darbar Committee empowers sex workers by building their awareness on their rights and by strengthening their collective bargaining power in accessing local services for safe sex and better working conditions. The forum created by the Darbar Committee now brings together 65,000 female, male and transgender sex workers working in the Indian state of West Bengal.