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Years ago, nobody in a government hospital was ready to look after Ravi and Krishnaveni, two small orphans, when they were diagnosed HIV+. Dr Manorama, the doctor in charge of the hospital, had no other option but bring the children to her clinic. She later adopted both Ravi and Krishnaveni. When the number of AIDS orphans in her custody increased, she needed people to look after them and a place to keep them. Thus, the CHES Ashram was born.
Dr Manorama found it difficult to get people to help her out in the ashram. No woman was willing to come and work with these children as they feared infection. That was how Dr Manorama decided to employ a couple of HIV+ sex workers. But these women, addicted as they were to alcohol and sex, found the atmosphere in the ashram stifling. So Dr Manorama employed some more such women and treated them too for their medical problems. As word spread among people that AIDS patients and sex workers visited her clinic, other patients stopped going there for the fear of being branded as AIDS patients. Finally, the doctor had to close down her clinic. But she continued to help sex workers.
Funded by APAC-VHS of the USA, CHES started another unit called Women in Prostitution four years ago. WIP identified sex workers through brokers and then educated them about the threat they faced from various sexually transmitted diseases, AIDS and the HIV virus. "We conducted a survey on 1,000 sex workers and found that only seven per cent of them knew about AIDS and the importance of safe sex. We tell them about safe sex so that we can eliminate AIDS, to a large extent, from society. They started asking us questions like, 'Why do you come here? Are you getting any money from this?' " Mahendran, a field officer with CHES, said.
It took the people at CHES a minimum of six months to win the confidence of these women and once that was achieved, some of them willingly became peer workers. CHES preferred sex workers as peer workers as the kind of reach they have among their own people was not available to others. These women continue in the sex trade and also work as peer workers.
"Rapport building is very important. Earlier, they used to come here only for their health problems but now they tell us all their problems, including emotional problems. After our association with them, we have found that 85 per cent of these women use condoms and 95 per cent of them are aware of sex related diseases," Dr Manorama said.
Who are these women?
They are into the sex trade not for pleasure. They are poor women. They have no money. They are hungry. All these women have families and they work for the family.
Devi looked famished and frail but once she started talking, we found she was full of energy, even in her old age. She was a sex worker who had passed her PUC, learnt typing and tailoring and had also worked as a primary school teacher in a convent for a few days.
So how come you are in this 'profession'? we asked.
"I have been doing this for 20 years now. Under the pretext of getting me a job, a man used me, and that was the beginning. Does anyone teach these things in school or college? They teach us about Akbar and Shahjahan and not about cruel men who are there to exploit innocent young girls! I didn't get any job and soon didn't have enough money to live on and this was one profession which provided me with lots of money. Now that I am old, I organise girls for clients and get a commission. But you don't get much as commission," she rues.
But are you not forcing other girls into this profession? Surely, she must feel some remorse for luring other young girls into something she knows is wrong?
"What madam, what do you think of today's girls? Girls are ever ready to enter this profession. You won't believe me, mothers bring girls to me. Husbands also send their wives to bring in more money so that they can buy refrigerators, television, etc. With the 2,000 rupees that the husbands earn, how many things can they buy? So, wives sell their bodies and make Rs 3,000 to Rs 5,000 a month and both, the husband and wife are happy! All these things happen these days, madam. Only a small per cent do it openly but the majority does it secretly."
Devi started working as a peer worker six years ago for various organisations and now she is with CHES. "I tell youngsters not to indulge in sex without condoms as one's health is more important than money. If someone falls ill or complains about some problem, I bring them here to the doctor," she says.
Then again, there are hundreds of people like Indira who land up in Madras with dreams of making it big in the tinsel world. In the case of Indira, it was not dreams alone that brought her here but necessity too. After her husband left her and her four children, life became quite bleak for her. Instead of accepting defeat, she boarded a train from Nagarcoil to Madras leaving her children with her parents. She didn't have to wait outside the studios for long. She was invited in, thanks to her good looks.
"I had no place to stay in Madras. How do you expect me to have rented a house when I didn't have any job or money? I remained inside the studios from morning till evening so that the whole day's food was taken care of. I hung on in the studios even after the shooting got over and on the first day itself, somebody called me home. I found the arrangement quite convenient. I was getting a place to sleep in as well as some money. So what if I was offering them my body? What was more important to me was a place to stay, some money and good food. Life was fine."
Within a year, she brought her children to Madras and settled into her new nocturnal life. "I start work only at night as the men are quite busy with their work during the daytime. My days are also quite full with cooking, washing and looking after the house. I get out of the house by evening to stand at the bus stand."
And how do men recognise her for what she is?
"We can find out those who need us from the way they look at us. They identify us the way we identify them. Then, they stop the car near us and we get in. Some take us to the beach, some to lodges, some do it inside the car itself and there are some who just want to talk to us. This world is made of all kinds of people." Indira laughed.
What if her children come to know about her 'job'?
"They already know. When I was regularly coming home late at night, they asked me, 'Amma, where do you work? Which office functions at night? We want your office address.' How was I expected to give them my office address? As if I have any office address! They also saw the condoms in my bag. Finally, I told them, "This is my job. I have studied only up to fourth standard and I do not know to do any other kind of work. If I work somewhere as a maid or a peon, how much do I get? May be 400, 500 rupees. How much can I do with Rs 500 these days? And, I may have to work from morning till evening. Here, I look after the house, and work only at night and can bring home quite a decent sum of money too."
Doesn't she feel bad to be selling her body?
"Of course, I felt bad initially and I feel bad even now. But there is no other way out for me. Who would have given me a place to sleep, food to eat and money to bring up my children?"
Now she works as a peer worker for CHES and her job is to educate others in the profession about the necessity of using condoms and undergoing HIV tests regularly. "There are many women like me and I either bring them here to meet Doctoramma or I supply condoms to them. I also tell them about the diseases that we are likely to get. If they are suffering from any disease, I bring them here to the clinic."
Kanakamma got married at the age of 13 to a suspicious and sadistic husband. By the time she was 20, she had four children and her husband had begun to find her unattractive. She was driven out of her house with her four children. She pleaded with all her brothers and sisters to help her live with them but not one gave her succor. As she shuttled from house to house with her children, a 'kind' lady who worked in Madras offered to help her.
"I came to Madras in 1969 trusting that lady. But see where I have landed? If my brothers or sisters had given me asylum, I would not have been here. I had even registered my name in the employment exchange and had worked for some time as an attendant in a medical college. Only after I came here did I come to know that the 'kind' lady ran a brothel inside her house.
"One day, she suggested that I send my children away, as her house was raided quite often. I sent my children to Kerala, to one of my sisters' homes. As I sent money regularly, my sister had no problem in keeping them with her. Believe me, I haven't gone to see my children at all. I continued to work as a prostitute, as I needed money for my children's education. Having sinned once, I couldn't come out of it. If my family had supported me when I was in trouble, I would not have come to Madras or entered this profession.
"I have been doing this since 1974. Now both my daughters are married and my son is working. They lead decent lives and they do not know where their mother is and what she does. I used to drink a lot, I used to smoke a lot; all to forget my past and present. Please don't think that I felt happy selling my body. No, I did not. I tried working as a maid in several houses but there too I had to face the advances of men. I cried a lot on the first day. It was very demeaning and sad for me to be arrested by the police and sent to jail. I tried to kill myself several times by drinking poison and taking sleeping pills. I even poured petrol on myself. Tell me, what is the use of living a life like this? I do not have anybody. I have not seen my children since 1974. I couldn't be present when my daughter was getting married. Still, I went there and saw my daughter's marriage ceremony from another room. Only my sister knew I was there."
After her husband's death, life became hell for Lakshmi as her husband passed away leaving her to shoulder a huge debt. When her four-year-old son fell ill and had to be taken to the hospital, she didn't have a single paisa in hand. She begged for help from the house where she was working as a housemaid but was refused money. Taking pity on her sad plight, her neighbour took her to a man who lent her money. He agreed to give her money but on one condition. He wanted her body. Angrily, she came out of the house but when she stood helpless outside the house, the picture of her sick son appeared in her mind.
She went back inside, borrowed Rs 500 and surrendered herself. "I decided not to do it again. But once the inhibition is broken, you feel it is an easy way to make money. That was three years back, and I was only 27 then. Nobody in my family knows that I am in this 'business'. I go out under the pretext of 'film shooting' and do this. While shooting, if the film people see a good looking girl, they inquire about her immediately and call her. You know for what! I do not want my children to know anything about what I am doing. Even though they are small, I have kept them in a boarding school."
She services clients around four to five times a week and gets Rs 400 to Rs 500 from a client. "See, we have to look after our body too. I know all about AIDS and HIV virus. If any man refuses to use condom, I give the money back and ask him to leave me. I even try to educate some men about AIDS. Once my son is big, once his education is over, once he gets a job, I want to put a stop to all this. I am not too old; I am only 30 now. I want to get married again and lead a decent, happy life"
Tomorrow: Let those who have not sinned cast the first stone
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