Empowering the Community from the Inside Out

Many of the VSMM staff are former sex workers, however now use their experience to empower other women in similar positions to change profession and live healthier lives

The Aastha Parivaar Targeted Intervention project, implemented with support from community based organisation (CBO), Vishwas Sehat Mahila Mandal (VSMM), operates out of a small second storey office in Malad, Mumbai. The Aastha Parivaar-supported project has a core staff of only ten women, yet is making a huge difference in the lives of its community members.

VSMM supports a Key Population (KP) of 1532 bar-based, street-based and home-based sex workers. Every month, they host health camps for the KP and their children. They attempt to make these camps fun by tying in games and activities, and giving the KP a small gift at the end. This helps to foster a tight-knit community and to motivate the KP to continue to attend.

A large focus of the project and VSMM is aiding its community members to become financially literate and eventually change to an alternative profession. This is no easy task, as the bar girls in particular are accustomed to the high income they receive, and have little desire to change to a lower paid form of work. Additionally, they are unaware of how to save money and guarantee a secure financial future. Typically, the only women who actively seek to change profession are those who are too old to work as bar girls, which is around 40 years old and above. Despite this, VSMM have overcome these challenges to aid many community members change their lives for the better.

When asked about their most rewarding moments working with Aastha Parivaar, one story is quick to emerge. It is the story of a woman who moved from Kolkata to Mumbai in search of work. At first, she lived with a friend, however was turfed out after she became addicted to chewing tobacco. Destitute and isolated, she took shelter at Kunbidli Railway Station, where she began to engage in sex work to earn money to survive.

Through the sex worker community, she became aware of Aastha Parivaar and began to take part in health camps and activities, before realising that she wanted to escape the life she had created for herself. VSMM trained her to become a Peer Navigator; an individual within the community who helps HIV positive KPs get to the hospital for A.R.T. treatment. She quickly ascended the ranks to Peer Educator, who is responsible for educating fellow community members on HIV prevention and treatment. With the help of Aastha Parivaar and VSMM, she is now pursuing a Masters in Social Work at IGNOU Mumbai and working a part-time job unrelated to sex work.

This inspirational success story can largely be attributed to the VSMM staff, many of whom are also former sex workers. One staff member worked as a bar girl from 2004 – 2008. She took up the profession as she had no money to support herself, and felt she had no other way to earn money. Ashamed of her profession, she says she had no confidence to sit in the same room as, or even speak to the general population. She felt her job was improper and undignified relegating her unworthy of equal treatment, but due to her inability to save or plan for the future, she felt trapped.

In 2008 she became involved with Aastha Parivaar and saw potential for change. Through their financial literacy programs, she learned how to manage her money and eventually had enough savings and confidence to switch professions to working with VSMM; first as a peer educator, and now as an outreach worker. She says that the education and switch in profession has empowered her to regain her dignity, and she now has the confidence to interact with anyone and everyone.

This story is not an isolated case, many of the staff share similar backgrounds. The personal experience of going from feeling trapped and undignified to empowered and free is what motivates and inspires them to reach out to other women in similar positions. Through leading by example, they are providing their community with support for the present and hope for the future.