Spotlight on Meena Seshu, SANGRAM: Sex Worker Rights in Rural India
By Rachel Thomas
The following article originally appeared in the Spring 2006 Sexual Health and Rights Program (SHARP) Newsletter.
"The entire community was terrorized," said Meena Seshu when asked about the impact of 200 police descending on the brothels of Sangli, India, on May 20, 2005. According to Seshu, the point of the raid was not to provide help and safety to those inside. If it had been, sex workers would not have been abused with harsh language, their calves would not have been struck with lathees (clubs) as they tried to run, and outreach workers from her organization, SANGRAM, would not have been beaten as accessories.
Meena's involvement with sex workers grew out of her role in the Indian women's movement, and specifically, her work on the HIV epidemic. Since experience had shown her that community organizing among women was a powerful means of addressing many problems, Seshu took this approach to the brothels, using collectivization as a model for giving women a voice.
As the founder and Secretary General of Sampada Grameen Mahila Sanstha (SANGRAM), an HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment, and support organization, Seshu works with socially marginalized populations in Maharashtra State, India. In addition to educating the general public about HIV/AIDS, SANGRAM targets sex workers and other marginalized populations at risk of HIV/AIDS infection, improving their health, building their capacity to negotiate for safer sex and supporting them in asserting and defending their rights. On February 28, 2006, SHARP hosted a presentation and discussion by Meena which provided insight on the challenges of her work.
While she initially approached her work as a "rescue" attempt, she was slowly educated by the sex worker community to become informed. According to Seshu, "The one thing I've always believed in is that we don't listen to women enough, even in the feminist movement. With sex workers, we don't listen to them at all." For many, prostitution is synonymous with exploitation, existing for the benefit of men so that they can have a better sexual life. However, by listening to sex workers themselves, Seshu has come to view this interpretation as flawed. In reality, "it's for these women to make money." It is a distinction that Seshu claims is "very clear to the women."
In recent months, SANGRAM has gained attention for its refusal to sign the USAID pledge opposing prostitution, a prerequisite for receipt of funding. According to Seshu, who is astonished by the sudden fuss concerning her small organization, there was no fanfare around the decision. When SANGRAM learned of the pledge requirement the organization decided it was best to return $4,000 already paid from a $12,000 one-year grant, and made arrangements with USAID to do so. Meena and her colleagues were shocked when, on September 29, 2005, an article appeared in the Hindustan Times claiming that funding was terminated because SANGRAM, whose past work has been put forward by both USAID and UNAIDS as a best practice model, was trafficking children. Seshu states that accusations continued even after the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi issued an October 6 statement asserting that the termination of funds was mutual and in no way related to trafficking. In addition to the accusations, SANGRAM now faces the task of "replacing" the USAID funding which was to bring outreach workers together to formulate strategies, transport the 350,000 condoms needed each month from the district health office to the sex worker community, and shuttle and admit sex workers to the district hospital when they fall ill.