At a recent Aastha Parivaar health camp for female sex workers and HIV sufferers, I had the privilege of speaking with the attendees.
The women interviewed had varied stories, some devastating, some hopeful, however all shared one thing in common: the financial pressure which forced them into sex work. Two of the women I spoke to were married, however their husbands did not work, leaving them as the sole breadwinner. These are their stories.
As a mother to two young children and the sole earner in the family, Anushka worked tirelessly every day as a labourer to be able to earn money to care for her loved one. Despite her best efforts, her pitiful wages were insufficient to even put enough food on the table, let alone other expenses. Desperate and exhausted, she was told by some friends about a bar where she could find work as an escort which would pay far more money. Knowing she had no other option, and unbeknownst to her husband, Anushka entered the profession as a final bid to provide for her family.
After just one year of working as a bar girl, Anushka was diagnosed with HIV, along with her husband soon after. It is unclear who passed on the disease, but one thing was certain; it changed their lives forever. Anushka left the bar, and now, due to the disease, does not have the energy to perform any manual labour. Her husband is now the sole provider, and earning enough money to cover rent and food for the week is always a struggle. Anushka’s biggest concern is her children’s. Her eldest child lives with her brother in Delhi, while the younger two still live with her and her husband. Ensuring her children have the ability to pursue education and a brighter future is now the main priority.
Anushka appreciates the support from Aastha Parivaar to help her and her family stay healthy, but desperately needs aid in providing a secure future for her children. To do so, Anushka would like help to move into government housing so that the money they save on rent can go towards the children’s education.
Her last words to me were “I will survive, but I am begging for help on behalf of my children.”
Originating from a small village in rural Maharashtra, Priya was married off at a young age in an arranged marriage. Priya and her husband lived in the village for four years, where her husband refused to work or provide Priya with any money to cover her basic needs.
In dire need of a source of income, Priya met a group of women who brought her to Mumbai and showed her the ropes on how to become a street-based sex worker. She says she clearly remembers their words as if it were yesterday: “just stand here and men will automatically come to you.”
Priya has now been a sex worker for the past 16 years. Her husband has since joined her in Mumbai and is unaware of her profession. Priya got involved with Aastha Parivaar 5 years ago through a Peer Educator’s efforts in her community, and now Priya is a Peer Educator herself. She educates fellow sex workers on the risks of HIV and importance of practicing safe sex and distributes condoms at monthly CBO health camps.
Priya does not think she will ever change livelihood as she does not have the training or expertise for another profession; however she does not say this with sadness. She is earning money for herself and for her two daughters, and with Aastha Parivaar’s support, practices safe sex and maintains good health.
Priya feels empowered and independent and does not want or desire any extra assistance other than the condom and healthcare provisions she already received. As long as she is healthy and her children are provided for, then she is satisfied. For her, sex work is a means of achieving this goal with which she is satisfied.
*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the subjects