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Thursday, September 9, 2010


A friend indeed: Saheli shows the way

DNA / Puja Pednekar / Saturday, July 10, 2010 1:35 IST

When she was traveling north from Bangalore, Laxmi was kidnapped from a train platform in Mumbai. She was only 12 at the time. The kidnappers forced her into prostitution.

Although she is no longer a sex worker herself, Laxmi has become a brothel owner, a peer leader, and a strong voice for safer sex among her “girls.” She simply tells them and their clients, “Either you listen to me, or you will die of this disease.”

Laxmi is a Bai (a mother or elder woman), participating in the Saheli Project, a peer education program for commercial sex workers (CSWs) that focuses on sexual health and social welfare. The Saheli Project started in 1991 as an initiative of the People’s Health Organisation.

“We realized that to help the sex workers, we needed to work at the community level. It had to be a self-help and peer-based model,” said Suresh Churi, one of the social workers involved in the project. It focuses on the red light areas of south Mumbai, including Falkland Road, where an estimatmed 2,000 prostitutes ply their trade.

The Saheli Project works within the existing hierarchy - top, brothel managers in the middle, and “regular” sex workers at the bottom to create its own pyramids.

It selects leaders from the three groups to raise awareness about HIV and sexual health issues among their peers. For every 25 regular sex workers, Saheli chooses one leader to be the Saheli, which means “friend” in Hindi. And for every 10 Sahelis, the organization chooses one brothel manager, or Tai, which means elder sister.

By educating one Bai, 10 Tais, and 100 Sahelis, the Saheli Project can reach 2,500 female sex workers. The project now covers about 5,500 sex workers in Mumbai and also has a program in Pune. “Once we pass the message onto one girl, it gets passed on to the others,” said Laxmi.

The project has a mobile clinic that provides primary health care and distributes condoms to south Mumbai’s red light areas every Saturday. It also offers referral services for those who need further care and treatment, as well as counseling and support services.

Every Friday, the Saheli Project and the National Association for the Blind provide eye treatment for the women in the Falkland Road area. Here they get glasses, treatment for eye infections, and cataract surgery, if needed. Laxmi said, “All my friends are happy now because they are getting treatment and care and their needs are being met.”

The Sahelis receive Rs150 per month for one hour of peer education work a day, and the Tais receive Rs700 per month for part-time daily work in peer education or Rs1,500 for full-time work. Bais do not receive stipends for their peer education work because they are considered to be of senior stature in the social hierarchy.

“Sex workers are in a trade where they are paid for each act. We feel obliged to pay them if they are giving up their time for our project,” said Churi. “We pay them in lump sums every two to three months, but we also provide them with ID cards, which means much more to them than economic incentives. They take this as a badge of pride.”
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