New Internationalist

Indian Community Welfare Organization

July 2008

on confronting HIV and AIDS in south India

Indian Community Welfare Organization talked with Dheepthi Namasivayam

Photo by ICWO
Photo by ICWO

A baby-faced man swaggers into our interview room. His eyes are decked in black kohl; his finely manicured fingernails are painted crimson and his lips a shade of rouge. His mannerisms are delicately feminine and his voice high-pitched.

You cannot overlook Satheesh Lalita. He flaunts his homosexuality like a badge of honour. While this may be more accepted in Western society, Satheesh, 32 (pictured), is from Chennai, in south India, renowned as being even more orthodox than northern cities such as Delhi or Mumbai. ‘My “coming out” process was very, very difficult. My family and friends – everyone hated me for being a homosexual,’ Satheesh says. ‘But in these last 10 years, the scenario in India has completely changed. People are coming out in thousands.’

These are just two of the colourful characters now working at the Indian Community Welfare Organization (ICWO) – a not-for-profit organization advocating HIV/AIDS prevention in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Just as Satheesh is not here simply because he is gay, Mary Ashokumar, 26, a small-built young mother, is not at the ICWO just because she is poor. Both have been sex workers. For softly spoken Mary, poverty exposed her to sexual exploitation at the age of 13. She had not even ‘come of age’ when taken from her native Kerala with the promise of work and then dumped in a Gujarati brothel-house. There, against her will, she worked as a sex worker throughout her adolescence, servicing men of all ages, often without the use of condoms.

For the last three years, Satheesh and Mary have been working at the ICWO, advocating HIV/AIDS prevention and safe-sex awareness. ‘If you look at the risk behaviour community, this includes sex workers and homosexuals,’ says AJ Hariharan, founder and secretary of ICWO. His brainchild was born in 1994 after Hariharan had participated in development projects as a college student and realized the urgent need to reduce the spread of AIDS in high-risk communities in Tamil Nadu. 

All too easily, social stigmas and taboos attached to the sex trade and homosexuality can obscure health awareness campaigns in India. Hariharan says the ICWO attempts to break down these barriers by using former sex workers to infiltrate India’s underground sex industry and inform current sex workers about HIV/AIDS transmission through unsafe sex, while offering – but not forcing – alternative work.

‘Our aim is on health. We are not looking into other issues: ethical status, what is sin, what is religiously acceptable,’ he says. ‘We want to make sure these male and female sex workers are safe.’ And this is being achieved through developing community based organizations (CBOs). A female sex worker collective to which Mary belongs – the Indra Female Peer Educators Collective (IFPEC) – was created in 2003; and the Men’s Community Development Society (MCDS) for gay sex workers – Satheesh’s area of advocacy – started two years ago.

Through word of mouth, these organizations have attracted an enormous following today. IFPEC in particular talk to current sex workers about preventing their children from being trafficked in the sex industry.

‘When [IFPEC] first started, there were 20 people; today, there are 2,088 volunteers,’ says Mary. While inside the MCDS, Satheesh says gays can express themselves liberally without fear of repression. ‘I feel it’s the safest place here,’ he says. ‘In their own houses, they might be afraid of putting on nail polish or applying kohl to the eyes. But once they come to these drop-in centres, they are free.’ Dealing with police harassment and discussing sexual health with doctors is also a focus within the MCDS. Both groups offer free medical assistance and psychological support for those facing challenges about their sexuality. 

‘In the long term, we expect these organizations to empower themselves and stop the violence faced by sex worker communities, address the stigma and discrimination linked with sex workers and especially those who are HIV-positive,’ Hariharan says.

While combating the stigmatization of the sex industry was a major challenge, today the ICWO faces obstacles in the political arena. ‘On the one hand,’ says Hariharan, ‘there are government health projects which promote HIV and AIDS awareness among high-risk communities, by funding the distribution of condoms; but on the other hand, government enforcement agencies want to create the image of a “clean” city [to garner more votes] by saying that sex workers don’t exist.’

Despite the political prevarication, the ICWO continues to spearhead the HIV and AIDS campaign in south India, approaching local politicians, police and paramedical staff and trying ‘to sensitize those who are stopping the intervention process.’ 

There have been positive results. According to Hariharan, Tamil Nadu is the only Indian state that has reduced new transmission rates of HIV from 1.3 per cent to less than 1 per cent.

According to Mary, the ICWO saved her life. If it were not for them, she would still be trapped in the depths of the hell that robbed her of her adolescence. Now, as an advocate for HIV and AIDS awareness, she is not only helping other women to escape their misery, but opening up the lines of communication with marginalized groups in India.

This column was published in the July 2008 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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