Women in sex work are constantly subjected to neglect and stigma – both socially and politically – and struggle to enjoy basic human rights as citizens of the country. In most places, mainstream financial security, a life of safety and access to services is difficult to imagine, let alone live, among the sex worker community. Facing poverty, violence and discrimination on a daily basis, the women find themselves caught in a web of constant difficulty, making them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.
Until the HIV/AIDS outbreak in India in the 1980s, very little was known about India’s sex worker community which was pushed to the fringes by a culture of silence. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funded ‘Avahan’ project and the National Aids Control Organization (NACO) efforts to contain the spread of the deadly virus in India, put the spotlight on women in sex work. The initial years highlighted the importance of a community-led approach. It led to the formation of several Community-based organizations (CBO) across the country. While they were effective in bringing attention to the community’s issues at the local level, there was a need to organize and create an impact at a national level.
The Taaras Coalition was formed in 2016. Taaras, meaning rapid progress, is a coalition of women in sex work and their organisations, which provides a nationwide platform for their voices, aspirations and joint actions, rising above ideologies, geography, federations, cultural and language divisions. With 107 CBOs and a presence in 12 states, Taaras aims to ensure that every woman in sex work is able to access all the rights they are entitled to as citizens of the country and live a life with dignity.
Taaras’ strength lies in its strong grassroots presence, amplified by its nationwide platform. At Taaras meetings at the regional levels with 4-5 CBOs, leaders identify and prioritize issues to be addressed. A strong network of leaders with different skill sets and capacities is another one of Taaras’ biggest strengths. The power of coalition is used to gain the attention of key stakeholders (such as healthcare workers, police, government officials and legal aid providers), and to educate them about the sex worker community – both at the local and national levels. A lot of the hurdles women in sex work face in accessing their basic rights and government schemes for their upliftment, have to do with stigma and general apathy toward the community by those in power.
One of the unique aspects of this coalition is the absence of a hierarchical structure. “Though Swasti will lead the Secretariat for 3-5 years to handle tasks related to hosting the coalition, it is meant to be entirely run by leaders from the community. We don’t have 2 or 3 leaders, but hundreds of them on the ground,” says Kallan Gowda, National Coordinator of Taaras. There are currently around 600 ‘community champions’. Taaras brings together leaders with different skill sets and capacities, each acting as a resource for any other member of the coalition.
The nationwide lockdown managed to undo many of the forward strides made by the community. The marginalized, including women in sex work, were pushed further to the fringes of society as they lost their sources of livelihood. Female Sex Workers, Men having Sex with Men, Transgenders and People Living with HIV( PLHIV) found it hard to access essential services and take care of their families.
68 CBOs from Taaras are members of the #COVIDActionCollab and the presence of Taaras leaders in these locations, who had good relationships with stakeholders, was crucial to ensuring the health and security of the women in sex work, many of whom are PLHIV, during the pandemic.
To address this situation, the following 7 services were facilitated to the community members:
- Free food distribution
- Grocery distribution and facilitating access for PDS
- Direct Bank Transfers – Govt schemes, Private institutions and Individual donors
- Cash Benefits – Govt schemes, Private institutions and Individual donors
- Distribution of ART Medicines
- Screening /testing and treatment – referrals to PHCs and local clinics
- Ujjwala scheme – Free gas cylinder
- Distribution of Masks and Sanitizers
Taaras leaders also tapped into their contacts to raise funds for the relief efforts. They mobilized support from individual donors including local leaders, elected members (Ministers, MLAs), businessmen, friends and relatives of community members who helped in distributing cooked food, grocery kits, masks and sanitizers. They also approached local institutions such as NGOs, Charitable Trusts, religious organizations, Foundations who supported the community with Grocery and ration Kits, Cash benefits and Direct Bank transfers. Authorised officials from district administration, Women and Child welfare department, Health department and the Police department, supported the community by issuing permission letters and ID cards to continue our work at the field level. Taaras and the Swasti secretariat helped the community members (1.2lakhs) in accessing support worth around Rs 68 crore.
Taaras members were supportive of their local governments in spreading awareness of safety measures, screening, door to door survey, distribution of ART medicine for PLHIVs, etc., while also working to guide the government’s efforts towards addressing the issues that the community was facing.
The leaders also had to be pillars of mental and emotional support to other community members during what was, and still is, an uncertain and troubling time. “This experience has given community leaders the confidence that they can take up responsibility and deliver too. We want to use this platform as an example to show the government the importance of bringing the community to the forefront,” says Kallan.