By Lakshmi, 34 years old, female sex worker, Ashodaya, Mysore, India
My name is Lakshmi, I am a female sex worker from Mysore, a district in Karnataka, one of the states in southern India. In 2005, a few of us came together when a lady doctor goaded us to and we formed a small organization. We were so scared, but slowly we were able to gather many sex workers and we formed an organization called Ashodaya, our own family of male, female and hijra sex workers.
Slowly but surely, we started mobilizing sex workers and soon we became hundreds and hundreds from a handful. We started a health clinic in our own CBO office and we also started a community kitchen. We also got a drop in centre and soon Ashodaya has become a meeting point for many of our community women and many have become regular after trainings in condom promotion, community mobilization and other HIV-prevention activities.
By now, we have also created links with other CBOs of sex workers both in Karnataka and other states and we formed a National body of sex workers. That was five years back and today, I am the president of the All India Network of Sex Workers. I faced a lot of stigma and I suffered a lot when I tested HIV positive. But with the support of all my peers, I not only got support, but I became strong to support other women in my state. Now I want to make sure that we all enjoy freedom from stigma, denial and discrimination in every form.
Today, I feel proud to attend the XIX International AIDS Conference Hub in Kolkata as the president of our Indian body, as this is the first time that such a huge number of sex workers from over 40 countries are coming and taking part in a conference. So I am excited about it. We are preparing for this for the last month. On 5 July, I have travelled to Delhi to do a press conference. Though there were about 20 reporters and camerapersons, they did not show much interest in the subject. But I was surprised to see huge coverage in more than 25 papers in the days following the press meeting.
In Karnataka, we have selected 20 representatives from over 15 organizations of sex workers and booked train tickets. It is a 30-hour journey and my friends arrived only now as there was a strike and all trains stopped for a few hours. Twenty others are coming from Chennai in another 32-hour journey while the biggest contingent is from Andhra Pradesh as 60 from more than 30 CBOs are on their way. Another 40 from Maharashtra and other high-prevalence states like Manipur and Nagaland will make it about 150 community members from India. Most of them are new to these big conferences and are all excited.
I came early for the press conference yesterday. I was really surprised to see almost 50 people in the Press Club. When the press meeting started at 13:00, I could spot only six reporters and felt that this would be another damp squib. But within a few minutes, the hall was packed. About five channels did separate interviews with the speakers. Today, about 20 newspapers and more than 30 websites covered the news.
I am looking forward to the sessions, especially, the media session. Now-a-days, we are doing a lot of activism on media ethics and we have also complained on a rogue channel as they did a sting on some of the home-based sex workers. The national broadcasters standards association called Kranthi, our network that all the CBOs in Karnataka are part of, to depose and our representatives went to Delhi to argue the case. We are looking forward for the judgment as many sex workers suffered because of a crisis triggered by TV.
I am also looking forward for the India festival as we celebrate all our freedoms and I warmly welcome all the foreign delegates and wish you a happy stay in Kolkata.
(As told by Lakshmi)