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Five Questions with SANGRAM’s Meena Seshu on HIV, violence and sex work in India
As the founder of SANGRAM, an Indian non-governmental organisation that works with sex workers to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS, Meena Seshu has strongly lobbied against the image of sex workers as powerless, irresponsible or even deserving of harm. Based in rural Maharashtra, the group seeks to empower the workers – most of whom are women – to form collectives and lobby for their rights.
Here Seshu explains that in order to help reduce their vulnerability to HIV, any efforts must first help them tackle violence. Avoiding HIV, she stresses, is hard to prioritize for those who are on constant alert for other more immediate forms of violence. She will be a key participant in the international conference in Kolkata, India, running until 27 July 2012 as a parallel event to the International AIDS Conference (IAC) in Washington DC. The Kolkata festival will bring together sex workers from more than 40 countries, and has attracted many participants who have been unable to attend or gain access to the IAC.
1. Drawing from your experience working on the intersection of violence against women and HIV and AIDS with people in sex work, what links have you seen between the two issues?
In their work and lives, all sex workers do experience disproportionate levels of violence. But because of the overall positioning of ‘sex work as sexual exploitation and violence’, the everyday violence that sex workers face is largely overlooked or ignored.
Violence is an important factor affecting the vulnerability of sex workers to HIV/AIDS. For example, being labeled vectors of HIV, blamed for the violence inflicted upon them, verbally abused, and living under the constant threat of violence damages self-esteem and results in poor health-seeking behaviors and exposure to risky behaviors. Violence and the threat of violence can cause people to move into unsafe spaces, leading people into working in more risky situations for less money. Where legislation criminalizes certain sexual activities, such as homosexuality, there is a greater risk of violence for those targeted.
2. What measures can be used to protect female sex workers from both HIV and violence?
Addressing violence against sex workers requires an understanding about how violence actually increases the risk of exposure to HIV. Quite obviously, injuries caused by physical, particularly sexual, violence can increase the likelihood of HIV infection. However violence can be social, emotional, psychological, legal and economic. With a clear understanding, it is possible to both advocate for better services for sex workers and design programs effectively around this theme. This means making the links between HIV and vulnerability to violence, convincing policy makers and donors of these links, and planning appropriate responses in project design.
Preventing violence at the personal level requires that sex workers believe they do not deserve violence – and that they can prevent it. But it is important for this understanding to be acted on at the collective level too.
3. What examples of such measures have you seen implemented by sex workers themselves?
The Ugly Mugs list is an innovative strategy devised by sex worker-led projects. Sex workers routinely draw up descriptions of violent clients that are posted at prominent places so that other sex workers can avoid such clients. It is also a means for documenting crimes against sex workers in an area; this list is then taken to the police.
Sex worker collectives are also working toward ensuring structural responses to violence against sex workers; governments and police can and must play a key role in preventing violence against sex workers. Such violence occurs not just because economic, social and legal disadvantages make sex workers vulnerable to it – but because this violence is allowed to occur.
4. What further investments would you like to see made by governments in this field?
The root cause of rights violations against sex workers is the `whore stigma’. Common attitudes that sex workers don’t matter, or worse, that they ‘deserve what they get’, makes it very difficult for sex workers to obtain protection and access support.
The violence of stigma and its relationship to HIV is often poorly understood and rarely taken into account in HIV/AIDS programming. This is particularly so in Asian countries, where State response to HIV has been poor.
Enabling environments need to be created for prevention and care. Governments must act in conjunction with the elimination of violence against sex workers, for HIV/AIDS prevention in the region to be effective. Protests and advocacy actions by sex worker groups around the world are gradually pushing governments to ensure that citizenship rights, including the right to violence-free lives, are also available to sex workers.
5. What do you expect or hope for, in Kolkata later this month?
Kolkata represents the fact that sex workers have united the world over to protest the `violence of stigma and discrimination'. The Freedom Festival frees all people in sex work to fight exclusion.