Kushi wants to be a corporator some day. The 37-year-old was a Class 10 dropout until two years ago—when her son was writing his SSLC board exams, she too cleared her papers, determined to pick up the thread from where she had left it. It’s her daily work among a marginalised community aspiring to a life of dignity that has built up her confidence to take on bigger responsibilities. She is a member of Taaras, a coalition of around 150 community organisations from 19 states that work among sex workers. Taaras has a combined membership of more than 1.5 lakh across the country. With 500 trained coordinators, the platform brings together community-based efforts to break the vicious cycle of poverty, violence, disease and discrimination that sex workers face.
Founded three years ago, Taaras has helped women like Kushi see the impact their collective voices can make on their lives. “Earlier, when we went to government offices or police stations on behalf of sex workers, people didn’t bother. Now they are willing to listen,” she says. There are scores of government schemes for women’s welfare, but sex workers usually miss out—either because of a lack of awareness, or due to the stigma. “That ‘we are sex workers’ is always on their mind, making them hesitate even when it comes to basic things like identity cards,” says Pushpalatha R., founder director of Swathi Mahila Sangha, a Bangalore-based community organisation that Kushi is associated with and which is part of the Taaras coalition. “We want to make them realise that they have rights just like everybody else. We try to make sure they get their social entitlements.”