Changing Attitudes, Changing Lives
K Saldanha 21 March 2013

Sangram has done much in the past two decades to empower sex workers in rural Maharashtra, finds

SANGRAM (Sampada Gramin Mahila Sanstha) has been fighting difficult battles—against the spread of HIV/AIDS among sex workers, against the stigma attached to their work and against their neglect by the government—since its inception in 1992. It works at the grassroots level mainly to support and empower sex workers by improving their access to healthcare and educating them about the risks of HIV/AIDS. It simultaneously engages with government and other NGOs regarding official policies and legal and ethical issues affecting sex workers.

Founded by Meena Seshu, SANGRAM is based in Sangli (Maharashtra), where the incidence of HIV/AIDS is very high. When it began, the objective was only to combat the spread of the HIV/AIDS. Soon, however, outraged by the inhuman manner in which sex workers were treated by government and society, SANGRAM decided to widen its scope. Meena Seshu explains that she realised early on that their initial beliefs were open to question. She says, “Our very perception of prostitution as exploitation, victimisation, loose, immoral and illegal was shaken to the core. It was not merely our ideas and beliefs that had to be questioned and reformulated but even the very use of language to describe these women had to be transformed. We have, for example, adopted the term people in prostitution and sex work to include all persons who ‘make money out of sex’.”

SANGRAM operates through the collective model. This means that it collectivises groups of sex workers in various districts to put pressure on the State.

Ms Seshu says, “The government supplies contraceptives to sex workers to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS. The quality of the contraceptives, however, was poor. So we organised protests. Over the years, the quality has improved. These protests not only helped sex workers to get the life-saving equipment they need, it also gave them support to assert their rights, that too in a largely rural area like Sangli, where such issues are only whispered.”

One of the most important facets of SANGRAM’s work is advocacy which involves pooling in the knowledge collected at the grassroots level to inform policy at national and international levels. As part of this component of its work, it has started the Centre for Advocacy on Stigma and Marginalisation (CASAM), a resource centre which advocates the reduction of stigma, violence and harassment of marginalised communities. Ms Seshu says, “CASAM fights for the sexual and reproductive health and rights of people who have been marginalised because they have challenged the norm. The Centre collects, documents and processes information on issues that affect people who are in multiple sex partnerships within and outside a commercial context.” Started only a few years ago, the Centre already has 241 books, 265 articles, 394 newspaper clippings and 77 CDs.

The organisation has several other sections. Through Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad (VAMP), it works with around 5,000 sex workers from seven districts across Maharashtra and Karnataka. In 2009, VAMP started a hostel for the children of sex workers from five of these districts at Nippani (Karnataka). Through SANGRAM+, it reaches out to HIV-positive women in Sangli. The programme covers around 350 women in the district.

Ms Seshu is part of the UNAIDS Reference Group on Human Rights and HIV. In 2002, she won Human Rights Watch’s highest award for her work. Donations to SANGRAM are eligible for tax deduction under Section 80G of the Income Tax Act.

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