A Mother is a mother even when the child is illegitimate! | Milaap

A Mother is a mother even when the child is illegitimate!

After a thorough conversation with the coordinator of Gram Utthan over lunch, I realized that they have been doing a good work with the health and hygiene of sex workers in Odisha. Unlike other organizations, instead of pulling them out from the much famous “In-famous” job-role, Gram Utthan has taken a new perspective of uplifting their lifestyle within the spectrum  of their occupation.  I wanted to know about their work culture and efficiency a little more so I made a visit to the organization which is located in Bomikhal, Bhubaneshwar, Odisha.

I was greeted by the Project Manager, Lakshmidhar Pradhan who has been associated with this NGO right from the time of its inception. He gave me a fair idea about its foundation, spread, growth and development. The Odisha State Aids Control Society (OSACS) introduced 8 new Target Intervention (T.I) sectors in Odisha in the year 2014, under which Gram Utthan was selected with a target of 350 Female Sex Workers (FSW). The basic objectives that the 5 working staff maintains is that of Behaviour Change Communication so that the sex workers articulate their issues and develop their own solutions or at the least advocate for the needed solution. Condom protection is one the fundamental intentions as the skills and services of the sex workers include penetrative sexual acts where the probability if STDs is a lot higher.

It is here that the role of the counselor, Pushpita Sahoo, becomes of utmost important. She has been encouraging the women to use condoms, get HIV tests and endure regular health checkups. The young women of barely 17 or 18 need a lot of extra motivation because of their lack of experience and knowledge in this field. Even basic habits like clipping nails to avoid condom rupture, oral health, pre natal and post natal care has to be broken down in the form of charts and videos for better imparting of information. Gram Utthan is also a recreational center for the sex workers, where they can come and enjoy a movie, or chat with others or simply sit at peace without the glasses of judgment. It tries to support and facilitate healthy changes in terms of sexual behavior that gets implemented as policies at district levels. After a lot of difficulty it has managed to establish a healthy relationship with the local police so that they do not harass the worker at every point. There have been cases where the police have ill-treated the workers and that resulted in their absolute apathy for attending any of the awareness programs. There are three sites in Odisha with 8 hotspots (chief area of service) that gets the exclusive attention of Gram Utthan : Malisahi, Rasulgarh and Palasuni.Malisahi has 3 hotspots and is the only brothel in Odisha. It was initiall taken care of by another organization called OPUS. Unfortunately, the sex workers rejected that organization because of the behavioral issues of the working staff. In 2014, Gram Utthan was given this huge responsibility and since then they are operating in this sector without much difficulty. Since the sex workers stay in the hotspots itself, they have a leader who manages the day schedule, entry and exit of the workers.  All the awareness programs that are held, Malisahi act as the stage for it.

I went to this particular site to have a talk with the workers and get accustomed with their day to day lives.  The community leader, Naganum Rao has a very interesting and open personality. She is a native of Odisha itself and due to financial constraints she entered in this business. In fact she is one of the oldest workers in Malisahi. “Experience makes me a leader here”, she tells me. She organizes the meetings with Gram Utthan and being a linguist is her USP when it comes to communicating with the workers in terms of their health, hygiene and body care. Naganum is also the universal grandmother here as all the offspring of the workers below the age of 3, are under her protection and care. Right after the children hit the age of 3, they are sent away to boarding schools to have a better future. The biggest success of Gram Utthan is that there are no second generation sex workers so far in any of the sectors. Ashray, a Community Based Organisation, works in close association with Gram Utthan to enhance the forthcoming days of the young souls. They also organize rehabilitation shades for any child who has lost the mother.Naganum impressed me with confidence as she spoke about how the health of the sex workers is what keeps them alive and earns them bread. They need to take care of it much more than any other profession. The awareness programs encourage the use of condoms and safe sexual behavior, which also helps to maintain the goodwill of the brothel.  If any woman comes to her as a first-timer she immediately rejects her because in this era, she believes, there are other options in life to select from. Only when a woman has been in this business before and has left the previous site, the entry is permitted.

She is much assisted by the peer educator, Jyotsna Nair. The work of a peer educator is like a bridge between the head NGO and the workers. The condoms that come from ICTC are handed over to the peer educators who then disperse it to the sex workers in person. When she first took the role of peer educator she would have a tough time in writing names and recording them. A mere education till 6th standard can do no better. However, we are all slaves of habit and over the years Jyotsna does not need any more help regarding data entry. Much of this credit she gives to Anjulata Nath who is the Outreach worker.  She has trained every peer educator which love and care giving them one-to-one counseling. The peer educators live in the brothel itself and they are as vulnerable as the sex workers.Talking to the sex workers was relatively easy because 40% of them are actually from West Bengal and I know the native language. They either ran away from the house or work under fake names. India still considers sex work as a silent crime and acceptance from family and peers is a dream these workers dare not see. They are very resilient to share any pictures under the threat of being debarred from their aboriginal communities. “ I do not care about me, but my son deserves to be a part of the family”, says one mother who has strive a long trodden way to manage the finances for her son’s school.

Apart from Maghai, Rasulgarh and Palasuni are two home based and street based sectors. Most often, after  the worker’s husband goes off for his chores and the kids are away at school the customers come to the residence of the sex worker. In case of street work, at convenient times the worker stands at a designated area of a street and the customers pick them up from there to their homes or hotels. Majority of these sex workers are married and their husband have no clue about their jobs. Mr. Lakshmidhar gave me an idea that the husbands often mistreat these women and drink away the fees of the children. Left with no viable choice, they take up a hidden life. Maintaining this secrecy is another huge liability for Gram Utthan for they cannot afford to get a wife kicked out of her house against her desire.The office of Gram Utthan has a very homely touch to it with posters and charts everywhere. Even if one is not educated, you can understand the importance of every objective through the pictorial adaption. From 350 FSW today Gram Utthan has 460 active workers who are enthusiastic about their profession and maintain it with dignity.  The attendance for awareness programs and use of condoms have steadily increased over the years and this shows the strive of this NGO hand in hand with the women who are fighting a battle every day to run their stomachs.