HIV/AIDS and Sex Workers in India

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Meena Seshu, founder and Secretary General of SANGRAM, an Indian NGO, talks about working to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS by educating and empowering sex workers. In 2006, SANGRAM received international attention when workers refused to sign the U.S. government’s anti-prostitution pledge, choosing to return funding rather than turn their back on sex workers. Last month the Supreme Court ruled that this U.S. government policy requirement is unconstitutional because it violates free speech rights. Seshu talks about the impact of the ruling.


Meena Seshu

Comments [5]

Jessica from Maryland

I am currently working for this NGO, SANGRAM, as a World Partners Fellow with AJWS, and have been for the past 9 months. I've worked with various NGOs in the U.S. and abroad, yet there is no organization that I've been as inspired by as much as SANGRAM. The word "empowerment" is thrown around a lot, yet if meet first-hand the sex workers who have collectivized here through SANGRAM, you will find empowered men and women. The women of VAMP are strong; they are brave; they are fighters. They stand together and shout out “sex work is work!” during team building type exercises. In the U.S., we pride ourselves on being a country where the “American dream” is attainable for all, yet sex workers are fighting for this exact idea of working hard to improve their lives and move up in a hierarchical society.

In response to Ed from Larchmont's comment about "getting them out of the sex work business," the truth is most sex workers don't want to leave the sex work business. The majority have come from working in other jobs first. They’ve worked before as maids, as daily wage earners, tailors, and cooks; but in these jobs, they were often sexually or physically abused, or paid below a living wage. I understand that our society tells us that we can “empower” these women by saving them from this work, yet I've learned at SANGRAM that empowerment is helping improve the conditions of sex work, making it safer and allowing sex workers to be free from abuse and eligible for government benefits like any other Indian citizen.

In response to "Guest from New Jersey’s,” you yourself degrade sex workers by calling the work that they do "degrading," "objectified," and "exploited." Did you know that 73% of sex workers in India reported that they willingly entered themselves, largely because of reasons mentioned above? And by using these terms to describe these women, you are taking away their agency and victimizing them--which, if you met a sex worker here, is exactly what they don't want. You mention that you are a mental health professional who counsels people in sex work; the fact that these women (or men) who come to you have had bad experiences is of course very tragic, but highlights the need for collectivization and changing the laws to give sex workers the same rights as any other employee! Finally, you mention what should be focused on is erasing casteism; there are many NGOs who are working against casteism, one of which is in fact SANGRAM, yet it's not only castism that causes sex work to exist. People in all classes are in sex work, in all countries in the world (including those without the caste system!).

I know that I, myself, growing up in the U.S. had similar ideas of sex work to those who criticize this talk. But after working with SANGRAM this year, I can say without doubt that this organization's approach is revolutionary in its ideas about sex work and human rights, and should be replicated instead of criticized.

Jul. 16 2013 08:49 AM
Debra from Jersey City, NJ

Assisting sex workers in India can come in many forms -- it is a multi-layered problem just as social issues are here in the United States. Even as some labor to change society to end discrimination, sexism, and economic abuse of lower classes - others spend their time in the trenches addressing the health and social needs of those who have to live within a less than perfect (and that's an understatement) society. The work of Meena Seshu is to be applauded.

Jul. 10 2013 01:39 PM
Guest from North Jersey

This guest is delusional. How can you call yourself a feminist when you help make it easier for women--whom she admits are primarily from the lower castes--to remain in degrading, objectifying work, and be exploited by men (many of whom are also hurting and betraying their spouses)? She wants them to have more dignity? Then help them get out of the euphemistically titled "sex work".

She wants to remove the stigma from "sex work"? I'm going to guess that this isn't so her friends from the upper castes who are dying to prostitute themselves can join the fun without fear of being looked down upon. If it isn't horrible, degrading and exploitative work, then why is it mainly lower caste people who are doing it?

As a mental health professional, I have had occasion to counsel people in "sex work" of various forms. Never have I encountered one who was not molested or otherwise abused in their early life. Never was it anyone who felt they had options. Never was it anyone who was not emotionally and spiritually damaged; now further damaged by the johns who see them as less than human.

While harm reduction in the form of reduced HIV transmission is a good thing, what would be better is to work toward erasing the caste system and opening opportunity for all. Because you're kidding yourself if you think this work will ever provide the 'worker' with a sense of dignity or power.

Jul. 10 2013 01:31 PM
Ed from Larchmont

How about ... getting them out of the sex worker business.

Jul. 10 2013 01:02 PM

This segment is followed by the one subliminally titled "The Human-Animal Connection" ...

Martha Rules!!!

Jul. 10 2013 11:17 AM

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