By Kavitha Srinivasa
Prachi Patel, Manager, Technology Development, Swasti, shared insights on Taaras, an October 2016 initiative launched to address key community-based issues of sex workers. Taaras builds on the work done so far under Avahan, the initiative led by Swasti since 2014. An Android app has been launched and used within the Avahan initiative to focus on each individual and enable service facilitation.
Swasti is a Bangalore-based health resource centre established in 2002 to achieve public health outcomes for those who are socially excluded and poor. The not-for-profit (NPO) organization’s portfolio spans domains of Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights including prevention of HIV, Life Skills for All, Water Sanitation and Hygiene, Social Protection, Prevention of Gender Based Violence and Health Systems Strengthening. The portfolio has been enriched by integrated initiatives like the Integrated Community Health and Wellbeing and Health Education and Livelihood Outcomes, which look at addressing family and community level needs comprehensively.
Though the portfolio is diverse, Swasti is best known for its interventions to improve the lot of sex workers. Swasti’s founders had been working with sex workers and other marginalized groups, and the complexity of the issues, as well as the support required, is one of the reasons which led to Swasti being established. The initial work involved support to organisations working with high-risk groups including sex workers and this has led to a more in-depth understanding of issues faced by sex workers. Co-incidentally, Swasti’s start was perfectly timed, just when the focus on HIV and high-risk groups was increasing and opportunities to work with the community and other partners who were working with them were aplenty.
Swasti’s mission is to empower sex workers to make the right choices to lead healthy lives. The Avahan investment has allowed Swasti to expand and deepen the work with sex workers.
The Avahan India AIDS Initiative, funded by Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) focuses on HIV prevention among female sex workers, men having sex with men, transgenders and people who inject drugs. As India is one of the important countries for HIV, the initiative has been here since 2003. It is one of the world’s largest HIV prevention programme for key populations and the third phase of the programme is being led by Swasti. Avahan currently works in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, which have had high HIV prevalence. The first two phases of the Initiative has been successful as it obviated 600,000 new infections and reversed HIV infection trends in the states.
Between 2003 and 2013, Avahan has completed two phases, which have several success stories to their credit. It turns out that many female sex workers have taken to the trade due to hardships. Avahan works with local community organisations, 69 across the 5 States, who through their staff reach out to 122000 individuals in 45 districts. Take the case of 40-year-old Velankanni who lives in the Theni district of Tamil Nadu. Poverty forced the former coolie to take to sex work, which she eventually quit. A chance meeting with Arasamani a field worker of Theni Mavatta Pengal Samuga Porulatharaa Sangam (TPSPMS), a community organization supported through Avahan brought her in contact with self-help groups. She started saving Rs. 100 every month and a year ago she took a loan of Rs 10,000 to set up her shop and buy goods to sell. Since then, her life has taken a positive turn.
The third phase of Avahan aims to sustain the HIV prevention impact achieved through earlier phases of Avahan. At an individual level, this phase works towards reducing vulnerabilities to HIV, apart from Strengthening Community Organizations to make them sustainable. The programme has four pillars, of which the first three focus on the individual and eco-system, the last one focuses on the Organization. Safety, security and justice, Social protection and financial security are its tenets.
Avahan’s third phase may end this December (2017) but it has opened out newer and less explored channels. Two areas have been identified. First, Swasti is preparing to raise funds by setting up an investment fund that will enable philanthropists to engage; the interest on the fund will support the on-ground implementation. Second on the agenda is to launching a Multi State Cooperative that works with all marginalized communities and will enable key population groups to access various financial and welfare services. In order to sustain the community agenda, a coalition of sex workers, Taaras, has been launched. This vision is being pursued by partnering with All India Network of Sex Workers (AINSW) to bring women and their organisations together to identify their needs and strategies to achieve them.
As the current secretariat, Swasti functions as a facilitator-supporter of the coalition rather than being decision makers. Being a coalition, it allows individuals and organisations to be members and voice themselves. The coalition functions at local, state and national level, wherein most work and activities happen at the local level. Matters of state and national importance are scaled up to the respective levels.
As of now, Avahan has 400+field workers. Regular interactions with the sex workers have revealed that not all the field workers have the same capacities across all the outreach activities and communication areas. For example, not all the FWs are open to financial literacy or planning and hence there is non-uniformity in information being disseminated on the field. In a community of 250 people, at least 10-20 of them are vulnerable and require more support.
Other problems have also surfaced. Paper-based formats were used to record the details about the people. Often the records were either lost or failed to offer insight into the past history of the person.
That’s where Taaras fits in — to join the dots — with its Android app. The app with all its features ensures accuracy and efficiency in operations, as Taaras will move in this direction.
So here’s an app that helps sex workers come out of their shadow shed their inhibitions and speak for themselves. The spotlight is on giving them a voice and helping them lead a life of dignity. One wishes that with time, the stigma associated with them fades away.