Being part of Ashodaya Samithi, we have achieved what none of us could have achieved on our own.
I have seen a lot of attempts to create programmes for sex workers that have assumed what sex workers need, instead of asking them. These attempts have not helped sex workers, and often have even made sex workers' lives harder or increased risks to their safety and health. I am one of those sex workers.
Top-down programmes by outsiders do not understand this, but sex workers are smart and can discuss and arrive at wise decisions. To advocate for services that work for us, we have joined together to organize. I am part of Ashodaya Samithi, a community-led organization that is by, for and of sex workers. We are based in Mysore, Karnataka, and we work in six districts of the state. We are connected to the All India Network of Sex Workers, a national network.
Twenty years ago I was scared to disclose that I was a sex worker. After I joined the collective that became Ashodaya Samithi, with the help of other sex workers I gained power that I could use. I started introducing myself as a sex worker.
I am no longer afraid to say that my work is sex work, and I respect my work. I am not afraid of advocating to officials. Just as the power of community has transformed my life, being part of Ashodaya Samithi has transformed several thousands of my sisters' lives too. Together we have achieved what none of us could have achieved on our own.
Ashodaya Samithi created for the first time a safe space for us to come together, enjoy mutual support, and mobilize to advocate for change.
Our organization has a decision-making process, where issues and proposals need to be raised first by a local branch committee and not from the central level. This approach makes sure the organization remains grounded in the lived experiences of sex workers, and that problems are solved in real time.
Joining together in Ashodaya Samithi has improved our safety and security.
We used to frequently experience harassment from criminal gangs and from the police. We collectively advocated with the local police, and now we have a much healthier, productive relationship with law enforcement and strengthened protection from violence.
Through constant engagement with authorities, we have improved the design of services provided by the health system so they meet the needs of sex workers. We have successfully advocated with officials for us to be involved in decisions that affect our lives. We have also created important services for ourselves, after consulting our fellow sex workers to make sure they meet the needs of our community.
Working together, we have achieved great advances, but new challenges have emerged. For example, pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) is an essential prevention medicine that sex workers need to protect themselves from HIV. But PrEP is not provided free of charge by the health system, and it is too expensive for many sex workers. Moreover, PrEP requires a series of tests and clinic visits every 3 months, and sex workers who get PrEP have to pay out of pocket for these services. That is why we continue to advocate that it is necessary to make PrEP and its associated services available free of change to protect sex workers and others from HIV.
We continue to be held back by barriers to our inclusionin decisions that affect us. Although it is a major step forward that decision-makers now talk to us, they tend to engage us only in relation to HIV services. But like other people, sex workers have a range of health needs, and no one issue can be solved in isolation. For example, we need to improve access to and help design mental health services. We need to be protected from hunger and homelessness. These are all connected. The national movement that we are part of helped in the legal process that led to the Supreme Court of India's judgement in 2022 that sex workers have the same right to human dignity and access to social protection schemes as all other people. This judgement has already led to positive changes on the ground, but we still have a long struggle aheadfor our humanity to be fully recognised. We must reach the last women in the line.
We are not problems - we are human beings, and we know our needs.