February 21, 2020
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They Haven’t Sold Their Soul

The Taaras coalition is changing ­women’s lives by giving voice to the most marginalised

They Haven’t Sold Their Soul
Mirrors, Not Masks
There are 2,300 women under the Taaras umbrella in Tamil Nadu
Photograph by G.C. Shekhar
They Haven’t Sold Their Soul

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.”

Taaras, meaning rapid progress, takes a pragmatic approach towards sex work. “We don’t say that being a sex worker is right, nor do we say it is wrong. That’s because we realised that every person has her own unique circumstances influencing what she does and the problems she has to face,” says G. Kallana Gowda, chief impact officer at Swasti, a nonprofit in the health sector, which partners with Taaras. “Our focus is on vulnerability-reduction. The National AIDS Control Organisation’s targeted intervention programme is one of the best in the world, but there are challenges beyond reducing risk.”

For instance, a Taaras member points out that sometimes clients offer more money for sex without condoms. So the intervention includes collective focus on ensuring sex workers get access to government-subsidised foodgrain or direct cash transfers so that they are not forced to compromise on the use of condoms in order to feed their family. “Today, 92 per cent of Taaras members have Jan Dhan Yojana accounts,” says Gowda.

“We act as a bridge so government welfare schemes can reach these people effectively,” says Pushpalatha. In Karnataka, for instance, under the Chetana project, female sex workers can avail loans to set up small enterprises. “This means we don’t need to tell them to leave the profession. Viable alternative livelihood options would automatically lead there,” she adds. Recently, about 120 people got housing sites in some north Karnataka districts under a scheme for traditional temple dancers known as devadasis.

“Now they listen to us at government offices or ­police ­stations when we speak on ­behalf of sex workers.”

Problems vary in different regions. “In Bangalore, you won’t know whether somebody is a sex worker or not as nobody talks about being one openly, but it is less so in places like Gulbarga and Raichur,” says Pushpalata. According to Gowda, while certain groups see coming out as a sex worker as the first step tow­ards realising their rights, there is no consensus on it across the communities. “Besides such differences in thought, there are also differences in language and cultural contexts to be dealt with,” says Gowda. That is why Taaras covers a wide range of approaches as the commun­ity-based collectives try to find what suits them best in their own setting.

“At first, women would avoid our peer educators saying, ‘The people distributing condoms have come.’ But now they eagerly wait for us,” says Helen, a Taaras member. At each of these community organisations, there are regular meetings where problems are discussed. Some, like Swathi Mahila Sangha, which has about 13,000 members in Bangalore, also offer microfinance loans to its members. “I have learnt a lot since I started working with the community,” says Kushi. “We have to be there for each other whenever one of us needs help.” She has so far overseen the disbursal of loans amounting to Rs 33 lakh and helped many women avail government schemes.

But the challenges they are tackling are still arduous and ongoing. “For every woman who quits the profession, there are two entering it due to their circumstances,” says Rathna, a Taaras member. Pushpalatha, however, points out that instances of harassment and violence that sex workers face in their daily lives can be reduced when people are aware of these community organisations. “It is only through such community organisations that sex workers can hope to make the rest of society treat them as ordinary people like everyone else,” she says.

Last year, Kalai Selvi’s daughter was married after she completed her graduation. Neither her family nor the groom’s kin had any inkling that the 40-year-old mother earned her living through sex work. All they know is that she works for an NGO and is also part of a self-help group (SHG) that engages in small businesses. “My main inc­ome is from sex work,” says Selvi, who lives in Vellore town. “Income from selling candles, soap and vegetables through the SHG only supplements it. At times, I feel guilty that my children are unaware of my work. But they take pride in the knowledge that their mother brings in the family’s income, while their father does precious little. That is what keeps me going.”

Does the fear of being found out trouble her? Five years ago, it would have been a scary proposition, but not anymore—now she has the backing of other sex workers in Vellore Pengal Membattu Sangam (VPMS), which is part of the Taaras ­coalition. Taaras has imparted a new sense of direction to women like Selvi. The basic charter is to own up to what they do if necessary even as they make efforts to get out of the profession, help prevent others from entering it and protect fellow workers in trouble.

Kumari, another VPMS member, says she plans to quit sex work in three years, when she hopes her new vegetable trade would have stabilised. “My income from selling vegetables has gone up gradually, reducing my dependence on sex work,” she explains. According to K. Jeyaganesh, a coordinator with Swasti, more and more women wish to find alternatives to sex work. “Ever since they formed the community-based organisation and the SHGs, banks are willing to give them small loans to pursue other vocations. For example, many have benefited from Mudra loans,” Jeyaganesh says.

The Taaras intervention has also led to its members rallying behind others in trouble. When an 18-year-old girl was deserted just 10 days after her wedding under the pretext that she suffered from a sexually transmitted ailment like her mother, more than 10 Taaras members came to her aid and dragged the man to the police station. There is a newfound confidence that any sex worker in trouble can hope for help from the group.

Coalition Call

Taaras members in Andhra Pradesh.

Through Swasti, Taaras has helped VPMS focus on four key areas—alternative livelihood, anti-trafficking, legal services, and HIV awareness and prevention. “We have dissuaded many sex workers from taking their small children along with them,” says Ratnagiri, a Swasti advisor. “Today’s kids could be tomorrow’s victims, we warn them. Legal intervention has also come in handy as many of these women, when arrested, are not charged for immoral trafficking, but for drug peddling or pick-pocketing.” Now lawyers come to the VPMS office once a week to render assistance. The police are also better sensitised on issues concerning sex workers, though much more needs to be done on that front.

Over the past five years, VPMS members have emerged as seasoned campaigners on HIV awareness and prevention. They also visit prisons to explain about HIV to the inmates.

With 2,300 women under the Taaras umbrella in 11 districts of Tamil Nadu, the long-term challenge is to make them find more acceptance in society.

In the two Telugu states, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, Taaras focuses on five major areas—community engagement, social protection, financial security, legal rights and HIV services—through its various arms. “I have no hesitation or shame in admitting that I chose prostitution for my livelihood over two decades ago to feed my entire family—a sick father, illiterate mother, two sisters and a brother,” says Anuratha (name changed).

Born in a family from the Dommara community, whose main source of livelihood is sex work, Anuratha claims she is leading a more comfortable and dignified life today with her children as Taaras has given her a platform to fight for her rights. Before becoming a member of Taaras, she had never even tried to know about her rights and availed of any government schemes. “Today, I get utmost respect, especially from the police and the district administration. The officials offer us chairs to sit on when we explain our problem as sex workers,” she says.

It’s not only the Dommara community that is engaged in sex work in these parts. Poverty is a common factor that forces people from other communities to enter the profession. “We are five siblings and my father was a farm worker. My mother was forced to supplement his income through sex work to run the household,” says Vijayalakshmi (name changed), from the Yadav community in Khammam district. “Relatives and villagers who came to know about my mother’s work forced her to leave the village. Unable to bear the insult, my father died, leaving the family in the lurch. That forced me to join my mother in sex work to support the family.”

Many members of Taaras groups from both the Telugu states have similar tales to tell. The ­platform has now given them the courage to speak out and seek help from the community. Legal aid is also vital as many sex workers are victims of violence from clients, similar to ­domestic abuse.

By Ajay Sukumaran in Bangalore, G.C. Shekhar in Vellore, M.S. Shanker in Hyderabad

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