Indian Community Welfare Organization

Indian Community Welfare Organization talked with Dheepthi Namasivayam

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.

Interview with Vandana Gopikumar

In the sweltering congestion of Chennai (formerly Madras), a woman runs from one end of busy Harrows Road to the other. She is half-naked, with lice crawling over her body. Her hair is matted with dirt. Clearly delusional, she is oblivious to the vehicles thundering past her in both directions. And yet nobody stops to help her. Seeing this neglect, Vandana Gopikumar and her friend Vaishnavi Jayakumar – both students aged 23 years – pull the woman to safety. ‘If we hadn’t really done something [then],’ Vandana recalls, ‘I’m sure a bus would have knocked her over or she would have died of starvation.’ With that realization, the Chennai-based organization, The Banyan, was born. That was 14 years ago. Now The Banyan cares for and rehabilitates 380 mentally ill women found destitute on the streets of Chennai. ‘Our philosophy is to reach out to marginalized groups, ensuring that we only play the role of catalyst and then work towards empowering [these women] so they’re in a position to get a hold of their lives,’ explains Vandana. Mental illness is still taboo in India, deeply rooted in dishonour and shame. ‘When you have a psychiatric family-member at home you can’t get the other daughters married off,’ says psychiatrist Dr Anand Balan. As a consequence, women with mental disability are shunned. Losing everything – their family, their mental stability, their entire identity – they are left to wander the streets. Women arriving at the centre are placed in the fourth dormitory of its Transit Home – the main residence for women. Typically at this stage they are highly unpredictable, with sub-zero self-care. Eventually they will progress to the third, second and first dormitories, learning to take care of themselves and find routine in their lives again. As they improve, women undertake vocational training in outstations – small terraced houses a short trip away from the main building. The centre is funded by individual donors – two corporate companies and a central government scheme –and is located in Mogapair West, an hour from Chennai’s city centre. As the music of Chennai traffic dissipates, the deserted rural dirt roads lead me to the dusty red-brick buildings that provide shelter and care for these women. The staccato sound of sewing machines greets those who drive up to the outstations. Sewing is just one domestic skill women learn here. Others learn beauty courses or block printing – the delicate and difficult practice of pressing designs onto _sari_ materials. They all look up as I enter (visitors are warmly welcomed here) and immediately they are keen to show me their work and no doubt sell some for profit (which they keep). Hand-woven bags and purses are thrust into my hands and while the temptation is to buy (at 250 rupees a bag it’s a bargain!), I politely decline. I look into their eyes. Gone is the vacant stare of those who have just arrived. Instead self-worth and confidence shines in their faces. For the last six weeks of rehabilitation, women live together in apartments away from the Transit Home and without constant supervision. These ‘growth labs’ prepare them for their reintegration into society. Just as they once did in their own homes, the women set their daily routine, cook, clean and are responsible for their lives. ‘It’s still an institution. You have doctors, you have nurses, you have medicines, but it’s in a home environment,’ explains PL Porkodi, who is in charge of vocational training at The Banyan. But once here at the growth lab, the women’s personalities reflect their conversation – some bold and brash, some shy, some cheeky. It’s hard to imagine that they were once on the streets, penniless. One resident – ‘Mummy’ as she’s affectionately known – is the most outspoken in the group. She asks the tough questions, inquiring whether I’m married (no doubt trying to fix me up with a nice Indian boy) and keeping all The Banyan workers laughing with her dry jokes. Vandana says The Banyan’s success in treating mental illness lies in the ‘rights approach’, which treats women as individuals: ‘They’re not patients, they’re not locked in and they’re aware of their rights. When they’re here [they have] the sense of freedom [to] say, I hate your food, I don’t want to be here.’ As for the woman running down Harrows Road all those years ago... she was taken to the Women’s Christian College before The Banyan was opened. Once there, she was given a sari and found shelter. But a month later when Vandana checked on her progress, the woman had been discharged. Yet even though this woman has not been heard of since she was plucked from the streets, her memory still inspires Vandana’s work. Like the thick roots of a banyan tree which form secondary trunks, The Banyan is spreading its arms out to socially disenfranchised women so that they too will not disappear into madness on the streets of Chennai. Above the sun-beaten entrance hangs the organization’s mantra – ‘I exist therefore I am’ – bringing hope to hundreds of women who, after a life of wretched anonymity, are rediscovering their roots.

Vandana Gopikumar talked with Deepthi Namasivayam