From the brothel to the boardroom
When 39-year-old Sangita’s husband died shortly into their marriage she found herself alone with no-one able to support her and was soon drawn into prostitution. Her profession gave her the money she needed to live but at the expense of her own self-respect, safety and health. Sangita had become part of a community pushed into the sex trade due to financial crisis, a high-risk group oppressed equally by society, law makers and the government which has to fight for basic rights and even those brave enough to leave prostitution and start a new life are so shunned by society that often they find it easier to return to sex work.
As a female sex worker in Ahmedanagar District, Sangita soon heard about the work of Snehalaya and our Snehjyot project which works towards reducing STIs and controlling the spread of HIV/AIDS amongst sex workers, their clients and partners. This is done through health initiatives and providing the community support and advice on issues such as harassment, self-help groups and advocacy.
In 2007, seeing her intelligence and communication skills, Our Assistant Director of Healthcare, Pravin Mutyal, convinced the 10th standard graduate to work with Snehjyot as a Peer Educator. She immediately started encouraging sex workers to attend regular medical check-ups and HIV and STI tests and conducting activities to raise health awareness and social entitlements. Within a year, she was appointed as a field officer for Kopargoan and then the whole state of Maharashtra. At first, she found managing the reporting, planning, outreach activity, talking in public and to government officials, whom she had previously been in conflict with, a challenge but she confidently overcame them, finally leaving prostitution to work full time with our project where she has convinced many other FSWs to become peer educators.
She says: “I feel lucky to have been able to break away from the profession and that the women in the sex worker community, my ex-colleagues, have accepted me and made my work easy. I also feel proud of being the first women from this community to be selected as a Maharashtra State field officer and attend the 17th International HIV/ AIDS conference in Mexico as a representative of India, the first lady from the Indian female sex workers community to do so. It was the experience of a lifetime, giving me a sense of achievement… of being someone with a purpose in life.
“I never wanted to be in the profession that circumstances and financial problems pushed me into. Snehalaya offered me a way out by helping others in my community to lead a better life. Snehalaya’s social workers, field officers, directors and trustees are an inspiration to me and their motivation keeps me going.
“I have now been working with Snehalaya for 10 years creating awareness about health and hygiene. All sex workers now insist on using condoms, attend regular health check-ups, second generation prostitution has stopped and many women have left prostitution and make their livelihoods in tailoring, fashion design and embroidery. I personally conduct tailoring classes and run an institute for women who want to start anew and refer their children to shelter homes and schools diverting them away from the hardships of the brothels and slums.”
Sangita has received many awards in recognition of her work, is a member of various district committees and has played a key role in decision making at Snehlaya through serving on our board of trustees since 2013. Not content with that she now aims to start her own community-based organisation for the benefit of other women who have faced similar lives so not only has she changed her own life, she also dreams of creating a new world for other women who have faced a similar fate.