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A ray of hope for Assam's sex workers
Life seems to have changed for the better for Assam’s sex workers; they can lead an honourable life, thanks to ‘Project Sakhi’ being implemented by the AIDS Prevention Society. To earn their livelihood, they are being trained in productive activities.

UNTIL A FEW DAYS AGO, Meghali did not entertain any hope of survival. An illiterate 19-year-old girl from lower Assam, Meghali was not able to go to school owing to extreme poverty. The second of the three siblings, Meghali was sent to Guwahati by her father to work as a servant in an aristocratic family. For one year, everything was fine, with a pay of Rs 900 (INR 42 = USD 1) per month. However, when she met Madhu, a driver, she felt that God had sided with her because she thought she could settle down in life with him.  She fled with Madhu only to land unwittingly in flesh trade. Madhu sold her to a pimp at Guwahati after which life became a hell. At first she resisted, but she could not sustain the resistance. For two years, she worked as a prostitute.

But life has suddenly changed for the better for Meghali. Now she can earn an honourable living, holding her head high.  A Guwahati-based NGO, viz., the AIDS Prevention Society (APS) has kick-started a project called Project Sakhi.  Sakhi (friend, literally) is one of the first peer-based intervention projects for prevention of HIV / AIDS / STD amongst sex workers in North East India.  APS has implemented the project in the capital city of Assam.


Director of APS, Dr SI Ahmed said: “The project, supported by the Assam State AIDS Control Society, was initiated in March, 2000. Recognising the poor state of sexual health of sex workers in Guwahati, the gateway to North East India and the low level of knowledge of the said workers, the present system of beliefs, practices in prevention and care of sexual health, it was observed that it contributed to a situation where STD / HIV could spread rapidly and as such an intervention project was felt necessary for implementation in the city.”


A large number of sex workers were treated for STD under the Project. Condom use, which was almost non-existent, has been gradually increasing and because of the peers or Sakhis, the condom-negotiating skills of the sex workers with their clients have improved. Far from living a life characterised by low self-esteem, they are gradually moving towards a life which gives them a feeling of security thanks to the support extended by the "Sakhis" to whom they can turn for help whenever necessary.


Under the Project, 123 sex workers in age group of 13 to 45 are now being trained in detergent-making, candle-making and file-cover making since September 7. The project would end on September 13.


Asif Ahmed, the Project Coordinator said, “We want every sex worker to rehabilitate herself under the project. Gram Sadak Parishad, an Assam-based body, is imparting training to them. We are also being helped by the Catholic Relief Society (CRS) in giving the right direction to this mega project.”


Dr Ahmed said, “Initially a baseline assessment was conducted through a sample survey to look into the issues of social demography, mapping, behavioural practices among sex workers and their knowledge and attitude towards STD / AIDS; the prevalence of STDs among them was assessed. There is widespread prevalence of STD and a poor level of knowledge of STD / AIDS in the sex workers. There is also a high volume of migration and being the gateway to the North East, a large number of people enter and exit through this busy capital city. A very large immigrant population is also residing in various pockets of the city. Some sex workers in the city are young women from the neighbouring States and countries who cross over the porous borders.”


However, Dr Ahmed admitted to some of the constraints in implementing the project.  “Guwahati does not have any established red-light area and as such, the sex-workers are mostly a floating population operating either at street level or out of residences while others operate as call girls and from some private hostels in the city. Because of lack of a red light area in the city, the situation is much more complicated and only through the network of peers have they been effectively reached for effective intervention through innovative approaches. The peers are treated as friends or Sakhis who are looked upon as those providing help and support.”


The principal components of Project Sakhi are -- behaviour change communication, STD diagnosis and treatment, condom-programming and creation of an enabling environment. These peers have effectively conducted behaviour change communication sessions and educated the clients on various issues of HIV/AIDS.



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