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Outtakes from India

« March 2007 | Main

April 12, 2007

Grateful for Anger

Meeting the men from the Green Dot Program and the women of Sanghamitra was the answer to my prayer. Hearing their stories reminded me that your can blame and rage at the world or you can get out of bed and change it yourself. They reminded me that regardless of ones’ race, sexual orientation, religion, gender, or social status, what will transform this planet is love over fear, truth over ignorance, and unity, not separation. Sanghamitra's motto, "In Unity There is Strength," is a profound yogic truth, and will be a teaching I carry forever more in my heart and in my practice.

India's great Freedom Fighter Gandhi said, “We must be the change we wish to see in the world.” I am reminded of the struggles I faced earlier in trying to make sense of the incomprehensible. These men and women taught me that we serve regardless of our confusion, we serve regardless of our fear, we serve regardless of our anger. We serve because it is only through service that connection, healing, and change are possible.

I left feeling a surge of inspiration and hope for our planet knowing these men and women have chosen to take matters into their own hands to "be that change," and I want more than ever to support them in their efforts.

I know that if we all work together as a collective for a common goal, this planet WILL change. Peace will prevail. Poverty will end. AIDS will be one for the history books. Our children will live to fall in love, make great art, sleep under the stars, and enjoy a unified and tolerant world—whatever they dream. But we cannot wait for someone else to make this happen. There is a Hopi saying that speaks to me in this moment: "We are the ones we’ve been waiting for!"

I am grateful today for the tears and the anger because it led to a prayer that provided an answer that, once again, opened my heart to truth.

April 11, 2007

In Unity There is Strength

After I met with the men from the Green Dot Initiative, I saw a cluster of brightly dressed women of varying ages coming up the stairs. Although they had clearly made an attempt to look lovely, I still recognized the telltale signs of poverty on their clean, but worn-out, saris. I recognized some of them from the yoga class I taught. As soon as they saw me, they start squealing. They kissed and hugged me, then introduced me to the other women I had not yet met. They held me close, very proud of their new friend. I loved being held and doted over by them! They treated me with a beautiful familiarity, which was sincere and loving. I was a sister and a guest, and they intended to show me nothing but hospitality. I was very excited to see them again and made a big fuss in return. All these women are the founding members of Sanghamitra.

Sanghamitra is a sex workers empowerment collective that was a vision of PSI/YouthAIDS programmers for many years. They hoped to create an organization of sex workers for sex workers to help empower them in all aspects of their lives. Being a sex worker has made these women vulnerable to harassment, violence, abuse, and neglect, with little or no legal or governmental support. They are often denied medical services and are treated disrespectfully. Women in India generally have little authority anyway, but sex workers are powerless to the whims of the system they work in. Sanghamitra was created with the intention that they establish a more powerful voice as a collective, community-based organization than they could independently.

The women who sat in front of me represented the original 17 that helped envision and set in motion the realization of Sanghamitra, its by-laws, and intentions. These women are all sex workers, some are madams, some are their "girl’s," most are illiterate, and all have been abused and victimized by the very system they now are standing up against. They are also some of the most bad-ass women I have ever had the privilege to meet.

In Indian mythology, Sanghamitra is the beautiful and wise daughter of Emperor Asoka, and the solitary motivation for his transformation from ruthless despot to a peaceful disciple of Buddhism. Sanghamitra, the providential name chosen by the women, is predestined to signify extraordinary change in their lives, toward a better, brighter future of hope and well-being.

Maya, the President of Sanghamirta, rose and made a speech welcoming those of us gathered in the room. Each office member stood and placed a beautiful purple scarf around our necks. They kissed our cheeks in gratitude for our presence there. I was moved by their sweet formality and their genuine graciousness. Maya proudly introduced us to the vice-president, a plump-faced woman with very few teeth, who smiled brightly regardless as her title was announced. We were introduced to the secretary; one of the few women in Sanghamitra who could read and write, and the treasurer—clearly the most successful madam in the group considering her jewelry and dress. To get these positions the members held an organized election. I could see their pride in this leadership, considering that before this these women have held no title other than whore. Their self-identity had shifted and their strength, willingness to lead, self-confidence, and commitment was apparent as a result.

Maya explained the objectives of Sanghamitra and how through brothel-to-brothel mobilization and one-to-one outreach, they were now have close to 200 women. They meet monthly to organize events, actions, and outreach activities concerning a variety of related issues.

I was enthralled looking around this circle. Weren't these women supposed to be the disenfranchised? Were these the same broken and victimized group of prostitutes that I have seen huddled in the corner stalls of brothels and staring blankly on the streets? By connecting with each other, sharing their struggles, victories, and truths, and unifying their intentions, these women were speaking with clarity and confidence about their goals and objectives. They intended to continue fighting for their rights! They intended to become a voice for the voiceless! I had no doubt that these brave women would succeed.

I got chills hearing Maya describe their objectives, realizing that I was in the presence of a movement that is transforming and empowering the life of women at the grassroots level. I recalled Susan B. Anthony and the suffragettes, and I saw Sanghamitra as a similar collective with the parallel intentions to abolish discrimination and rally for equal rights. They explained that there were other collectives like this all around India working together to create change in women's lives. These women were radicals and mavericks. They are completely going outside of the box of what was expected of them, considering their rank in society.

Remember, sex workers are often sold into prostitution, forced into it by their families, or widowed at an early age (widows can not re-marry and are often sent to live their lives in hostels where begging and prostitution become necessary for survival). It is normal to arrange a marriage at birth, and these girls are often sent far from home to become enslaved by their in-laws as servants or trafficked out. Since these women are neglected, without education, humiliated, alone, often beaten, they do not have the will or wherewithal to fight, argue, or disobey. They are filled with fear, shame, and loneliness.

Do you understand what it has taken for the women of Sanghamitra to get organized the way they have? Not only are they fighting against years of personal abuse and neglect, but they are also rejecting a cultural expectation of women as powerless and submissive! To me, it is nothing short of an act of God that these women have recognized these injustices, have decided them intolerable, and are no longer willing to wait for someone else to fix or change their circumstances. They are rallying and making it happen on their own!

They fight knowing that there are many risks, including wrath from other women, abuse from husbands or madams, even imprisonment. They also know the obvious outcome to lives like theirs: sickness, poverty, and death. To them, living with the solid intention to create change is a risk they'll live with, rather then continue to live isolated and defeated. They are refusing to allow this corrupt, abusive, and oppressive system to continue to dictate their lives. They are supplanting themselves, as a collective voice, into mainstream society without shame, apology, or fear. It's all for one purpose: To insist on a better life for themselves and others. Their desire to protect themselves, each other, and the children they love, is stronger than the fear of being socially and physically persecuted.

Maya explained some of the group's main objectives. They want to decrease their levels of vulnerability, unite in their efforts to adopt healthy sexual behavior as a norm within their community, and restrict the spread of HIV/AIDS and STIs. They also planned to increase membership, increase legal awareness, create a more secure environment for their children, ensure correct and non-judgmental medical care, unite in a common goal that all sex workers insist on condom use, improve relationships with brothel owners and sex workers, and ensure equal access to civic services (receiving ration and election cards and banking services).

YouthAIDS has come in to help provide moral and logistical support, assist the women to raise a platform to address issues and build the capacity of the women, particularly in terms of increased motivation and self-esteem to enhance their decision-making abilities. They also provide Sanghamitra, especially in the initial stages, with constructive council on the successful establishment and recognition as an organization that operates within the parameters of the law.

As a result of their efforts, Sanghamitra is now an organized collective that is recognized and officially registered with the Mumbai Charities Commission and an independent entity under the Societies Registration Act of 1860.

I asked the women how their lives had changed since they joined Sanghamitra. A very young woman named Sumna explained that before Sanghamitra, she lived isolated and alone. She had no friends, and each day consisted of work, cooking, and cleaning. She was lonely. She now has a network of friends. She loves the company of women and feels more confident because if something goes wrong, if she gets hurt, persecuted, or lied to, she feels she has women in her life that have her best interest at heart. She believes that they care about her, and will aid, guide, and support her in her life.

Pooja told us that before Sanghamitra she would mind her own business and would never consider interfering in any one else's life. Since her involvement, she feels more confident and out spoken. She told of a sex worker named Aroona who, because she was pregnant, was thrown out of her brothel by her madam. Aroona was very ill when Pooja found her on the street. Concerned about Aroona and her baby, Pooja took her to the hospital, but the hospital wouldn't admit Aroona without her husband's consent! Pooja went home and insisted her own husband come and sign in as the girls' husband. She was able to get the proper attention so she lived. Pooja then went to the brothel owner with other members of Sanghamitra. They appealed her decision to throw her out. They argued on Aroona's behalf. The brothel owner took her back. Pooja said that she would have never felt empowered enough to do that if she didn't feel the strength of the sisterhood behind her.

Then a very beautiful, Nepalese woman named Somany spoke. Somany was clearly a successful madam. She spoke with authority and I could tell the other women respected her. She shared how the Indian government was voting on a bill to enforce the policies of illegal prostitution. Although it's illegal, most sex workers are only arrested if caught soliciting on the street. What goes on inside their homes and brothels is often overlooked. Policemen are not even permitted inside a brothel after 7 p.m. without the escort of a female cop to prevent the officer from raping the women—a common practice. If this measure passed, it would crack down on brothel-based business, putting thousands and thousands of women out of work to starve to death on the streets. Sanghamitra rented a bus and drove from Mumbai to Delhi where they demonstrated in front of the Parliament. There was violence and tear gas, and many of the girls were harassed, hit, screamed at, and even arrested. They did not back down. Hundreds and hundreds of impoverished sex workers from all over India ralleyed together and fought for their rights. They asked for laws to protect sex workers, not criminalize them when there was no other system in place for their survival. All of the women refused to leave until they were heard. The bill was not passed and the women were free to continue earning a living.

The women of Sanghamitra are very clear that they would all love for their situation to be different, but until some major changes take place they intend to do whatever is necessary to continue empowering themselves, make certain their rights are protected, their livelihood ensured, and their opinions heard.

These women are a strong and effective voice for change, and a brilliant model of what can happen when we come together to serve a belief, and each other, to fight oppression and persecution. Their motto is "In Unity there is Strength."

April 10, 2007

Committed to Change

For days now we've been visiting slums and brothels. It is incredibly difficult to witness such crippling examples of human life. Sadly, India's impoverished population is only one example of a mass global issue that desperately needs to be addressed. Poverty, hunger, dehydration, AIDS, and death exist everywhere! Millions and millions of people are living each day of their lives simply trying to survive. I've done a lot of yoga, breathing, and praying in the attempt to stay present and non-reactive, but this morning I just feel like shit. So many emotions are arising within me, and I feel agitated and uncomfortable in my own skin. I know I need to be honest instead of repressing my feelings. I know that repressed emotions have a way of surfacing in reactive, thoughtless, or self-destructive ways, so it's important to give them a voice (they are living rent-free in my head anyway, as Ashley likes to say). So here's what's on my mind:

Today, I woke and felt anger and sadness toward a system that allows its people to live in continued squalor with no evidence of relief in sight (this feeling is not directed at India alone, this is a global reflection, as most countries in this world, including America, don't focus on helping the impoverished and sick). I feel a boiling rage toward a world that chooses to put its considerable money and energy into manifesting more violence rather than contributing to peace. When so many of our brothers and sisters are dying everyday unnoticed, unrecognized, alone in the streets they call home, I feel a deep shame because I know that we have turned our back on them.

I'm feeling frustrated by my own spiritual beliefs, and confusion towards the teachers who have provided me wisdom. They have taught me that we are all one, unified, and connected. I understand the law of Karma, and that all beings have their own individual lessons to learn. I get that these lessons are relevant to their unique journey and are ultimately between them and God. But I don't understand children exploited, raped, abandoned, and dying. I don't get why there are so many people starving when there is food plenty for everyone. I don't understand a governmental system that allows the AIDS crisis and poverty to continue running rampant when there are organizations in place willing to serve and educate, but can't get the necessary funding. I don't understand this same system that seems to find unlimited resources to fund man killing man. Perhaps I am not yet spiritually mature enough to separate myself from the "story" of these beings and their journey. Perhaps I am supposed to witness, with compassion and empathy, their souls' journeys, rather than their physical ones. Sorry. No can do. Try as I might to reconcile this spiritually, I don't understand when I see this level of ignorance and suffering.

I lay in bed this morning feeling helpless, confused, angry, and scared. As I meditate I and can hear my teachers in my head suggesting that maybe I'm being confronted with this to learn compassion, tolerance, and patience. I hear it, but I'm not buying it. I have compassion, but I cannot, will not, tolerate a social prejudice that allows death to overshadow life. I cannot tolerate a global ambivalence that perpetuates fear and greed having more power and influence over love. I have no patience for those of us who have the ability to make a difference, but not the willingness. This includes me. Have I done enough? Have I used my voice as well as I can? Have I really engaged myself?

I dare to demand in my prayers that God show me evidence of what true action looks like and what is necessary in order to create change!

As they often are, my prayers are answered fast and by unusual angels.

The Green Dot Program and Sanghamitra are perfect examples of how the participation of brave individuals can create a network of interpersonal and national change. It's these changes that can transform the limitations of a system and, therefore, potentially, an entire culture.

We are brought back to the main office of YouthAIDS Mumbai and led, once again, to the upper office. There are four Indian men, all peer educators and representatives for the IDU (Intravenous Drug Users) Initiative, waiting for us. They are here to share about their lives and this program. These men are all recovering drug addicts and committed to serving a population that are under-served and ostracized, and, therefore, are at a high risk for HIV/AIDS. To understand their place in the social chain, sex workers and homosexuals have more status, respect, and rights then IDUs.

As of 2004, 28 percent of IDUs in Mumbai are infected with HIV/AIDS. According to studies, only 35 percent of drug users utilize condoms and 27 percent share needles. IDUs do not have access to basic amenities like chemists and grocery shops, because of the ongoing and extreme stigmatization from pharmacists regarding this largely poor and often homeless population.

The Green Dot Program is a prevention effort that focuses on curtailing the spread of HIV/AIDS among IDUs by increasing safer injecting practices, providing education, guidance, and support, and utilizing VCT services for all of those in need, without prejudice or judgment.

The men in the room began sharing their stories with an internationally familiar greeting of "Hello, my name is . . . and I am an addict." These men are all dedicated members of Alcohol and Narcotics Anonymous and proudly practice the 12 steps in their lives. I immediately relaxed in this environment of familiarity.

Although I'm not a member of a 12-step program, I am familiar with the steps and intention of this incredible organization. AA and NA save lives. They offer hope and guidance to millions of people who suffer with the disease of drug- and alcohol-addiction. Since I have many people in my own life who struggle with addiction, I am sensitive to this program. I know that the 12 steps are the corner stone of their sobriety, so I was excited to listen to the men in this room because, although (without the help of an interpreter) I couldn't understand a word that they were saying, I knew we were speaking the same language.

Each man spoke candidly about the struggles he had overcome with drugs and alcohol and how he intended to serve and empower other addicts.

Mula shared shyly how as a young child, he was repeatedly raped by a female member of his family. This trauma, he explained, led to alcohol consumption. It became his “bridge” drug until he discovered Brown Sugar. Brown Sugar, I found out, the drug of choice for each man in the room, is a cheap and toxic form of heroin that is cut with ammonia, ash, and cow shit.

Sudheep shared that he was homeless when he was only a 9 year-old child--both of his parents had died of AIDS. He struggled to survive, living on the street, hustling and begging to feed himself and his brother. He said his life was lonely and often terrifying. He began using Brown Sugar at 13. At 21, he faced the on-going battle of sobriety after he had fallen off a moving train, losing his left arm and severely scarring his face.

The other two men came from educated, middle-class families, proving that drug addiction does not discriminate. They shared personal stories of familial abandonment, social humiliation, extreme self-hate, and the endless prayer for the salvation of death over the hell of addiction.

Each man spoke of the isolation and shame that their addictions caused them and their families. They also spoke of the unwavering gratitude they had for their recovery and the lives they now lead. Each man was committed to working with YouthAIDS as a peer educator in the Green Dot Initiative. They understood that educating, supporting, and being of service to other at-risk drug users was a necessary step in their own continued sobriety. I could see empathy in their eyes when they spoke of the other drug addicts they intended to serve, and I was glad that these men survived to tell their tales because I had no doubt that many lives would be saved as a result.

April 09, 2007

The Helpline

Today we were taken to another office to see a program known as "The Helpline." This particular project has been completely funded by The Elton John Foundation and is the binding component of an all-inclusive, effective prevention campaign. The Saadhann Mumbai HIV/AIDS Helpline is an anonymous, confidential service that provides its callers with technical and correct information related to HIV, STIs and sexual health, and motivates clients to determine their HIV status. In addition, trained counselors provide callers who engage in risky behavior with risk-reduction plans. The helpline provides referrals to health and social services and care and support facilities. The Helpline has received over 66,000 calls to date.

This program is critical as it provides a safe haven for people to inquire about information and services in an anonymous way, allowing them more freedom to express and ask the question pertinent to him/her without fear or shame. The room is small and there were four counselors taking calls at any given time.

I was impressed with the humanity and sensitivity of the counselors. They spent a lot of time with each caller, calmly asking relevant questions and providing thoughtful guidance.

Then, we were brought to a VCT (Voluntary Counseling and Testing) Center in Mumbai's red-light district specifically marketed to the clients of sex workers. VCT Centers offer confidential, affordable, accessible counseling and testing services. This center has seen over 15,000 clients.

After this we went to an area in another red-light district with a large population of transgender sex workers. YouthAIDS Mumbai's peer educators had a booth where they were distributing information on safe sex and correct condom use. Their information was specifically targeting MSM, or men who have sex with men. The MSM initiative targets men who are gay or bi-sexual, have sex with trans gendered and transsexual men and eunuchs. Eunuchs are a small population of castrated men who live their lives as women. Ostracized by their families and communities, these disenfranchised human beings often dress as women. They earn their living by begging and becoming sex workers.

The Mumbai Red Light District (RLD) Project addresses the HIV/AIDS epidemic in female sex workers and their clients. To complement this effort, PSI/YouthAIDS initiated an intervention with male sex workers and other men who have sex with men (MSM) in strategically identified hotspots within the red-light area. PSI/YouthAIDS has taken a holistic approach to impede the spread of HIV/AIDS by expanding its interventions to address the more concealed male-to-male sex in an area known for female sex workers.

Rather than focus on issues of gay identity, PSI/YouthAIDS focuses on health concerns and provides MSM with information through a team of outreach workers, both gay and heterosexual. Extensive sensitization and trainings for both outreach and clinic staff have helped make MSM clients more comfortable to speak openly about their health problems.

Homosexuality is a huge taboo in the Indian culture, and men who engage run the risk of stigmatization, humiliation, and even imprisonment because homosexuality is illegal (Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, threatens prison for up to 10 years for "carnal intercourse against the order of nature"). I found out that there is a not a community within Mumbai for gay men who are comfortably and happily "out" with their sexuality. Familial and societal acceptance towards homosexuality, according to the YouthAIDS peer educators, just does not exist in India. Homosexuality is a hidden behavior and gay men keep their lives and activities on the down low. Sadly, this perpetuates living in lies, shame, and confusion and the need to explore their natural sexual impulses in secretive ways. The MSM Initiative is a program that addresses the needs of this population and provides them with information and services denied to them by other organizations because of the social stigma attached to homosexuality.

I hope this gives you a sense of what these grassroot programs do and how they work together to support a unified effort of outreach, education, action, and change. These efforts are made possible only by funding.

In the U.S., YouthAIDS works tirelessly at a cause-related marketing approach. They align with the commercial sector to create national ad campaigns and products to raise awareness and money. Kate Roberts (who founded YouthAIDS) is brilliant at creating successful campaigns and has worked with companies like ALDO Shoes, Levi's, Hello Kitty, and Kiehl's, to name only a few. The campaigns are edgy, informative and impactful and have raised millions of dollars that support these grassroots initiatives in India and in 70 countries worldwide.

After three years of raising awareness and money within the yoga community for YouthAIDS, it's incredibly satisfying to witness how and where the money we've raised is spent and, most importantly, connect to the people who are benefiting.

April 04, 2007

Silent Blessings

As I walked down Falkland Road, I noticed many women sitting on their porches or standing against the walls. Some of them were talking to each other, or tending to children, or just staring into space. Some retreated inside their rooms as we approached and closed a curtain that separated them from the street, offering them a little privacy from the world. Others watched us as we walked by. I made an attempt to make eye contact as often as I could and was happy when they returned my smile or "hello."

The women were young, old, beautiful, homely, fat, and thin. The only thing they all had in common was that they were poor. The red-light district is in a dirty slum so, of course, the homes and brothels are filthy, small, and severely over-crowded. Often the women have sex with their clients while their children sit on the floor nearby. Most of the women live their, work all day, tend to their children and cook and clean in their spare time. They live a horrible life that robs them of self-respect and dignity. I can only imagine the feelings of anger, sadness, and shame that must lurk so far down inside these women.

Halfway down the main street we were led to a large, white office that was once brothel, now a Wellness Clinic that serves sex workers and their children. This center was an incredible facility run by female doctors to provide all types of services including STI screening and treatment, reproductive, general and child health, as well as counseling and medical monitoring. It provides affordable and accessible health-care services, and ensures appropriate medical treatment in a friendly, non-judgmental way. It was amazing meeting the doctors because of their love and respect for the sex workers and their commitment to serve them respectfully.

What has continually impressed me is the dedication and compassion of the doctors, peer educators, councilors and program managers. These brilliant men and women are highly-educated and could work in environments that are much safer and more glamorous. Instead, they choose to dedicate their time and talents to serve these communities. Although they may often get burnt out, they are passionate about empowering these women with life-saving information. I am inspired by the willingness of people who truly live to serve. It is what feeds them and gives their own life meaning and purpose.

We traveled to another red-light district called Kamathipura, where we were permitted to walk through an actual brothel. The inside of the brothel was one of the darkest, most depressing places I've ever been. The rooms were small, impersonal, and oppressive. The "beds" were raised slabs of concrete. I can't even describe the smell—perhaps a combination of urine, semen, discharge, blood, and sewage. The women sat in corners waiting for their turn to work. There spirit was lifeless. I could feel my heart break for them. Was there a single woman in this place that was ever loved!? Have they ever known trust and safety? What about happiness? Had they ever experienced joy? As I walked through the corridor, I smiled gently at the women and thought about my own life and how fortunate I've been to have so much love in my life. I walk this world with confidence because of the love I have received from my family, friends, and my partner Al. I am fortunate to be in love and know what it is like to be loved back in return. Knowing that there are so many people in this world that don't get to experience this connection saddens my spirit.

I continued walking by each room seeing downcast women.I prayed for each one, "Dear God, let them be safe! Please protect them, help them be free! May they experience joy. May they be loved. May they have food for their children. May no hand hurt or shame them. May they only know Grace!" I silently offered them blessings, hoping that, on some level, they could feel that someone was offering them something that wasn't meant to hurt or betray. Once again, I put myself in check. "Observe, learn, and feel," I told myself, "Do not project! Stay present and let these women teach you."

But what am I supposed to learn from them? What can they possibly teach me?

April 03, 2007

Red-Light Reaction

The last few days have been a continued whirlwind of activities, consisting mostly of visiting brothels in red-light districts, meeting sex workers, visiting testing and wellness centers, and experiencing a variety of grassroots programming. We have been going at an overwhelming pace trying to see as much as possible. We're all a little exhausted, but also exhilarated by the people and programs we've seen.

There is absolutely nothing romantic, sexy, or alluring about a Third World red-light district. It is a dirty and depressing place. We drove to Falkland Road, one of Mumbai's largest red-light districts, and got out of our car to observe. The sex workers and their clients continued doing business as usual because YouthAIDS poses no threat to them—not that it would necessarily matter. Prostitution is "illegal" in India, but many of the clients of sex workers are policemen, even judges. Sex trafficking is big business (all over the world, even in the United States), and often these officials are getting greased to look the other way. In doing so, they contribute to the brutalization, enslavement, and rape. And the sex workers we've met said that on the chance the workers do get arrested, the police beat them, rape them, and turn them back out on the street once they pay the bail. Sex workers have no status. They are denied their legal, civic, and moral rights.

There are three types of prostitutes in India. Most are brothel-based, which means they live/work together in one house and are responsible for paying the madam whatever her fees are for room and board as well as her cut for each client. There are also independent sex workers that work from their homes without a madam. Usually their husbands will pimp them out. Lastly, there are the 50/50 sex workers. These women usually have been working with a madam for longer periods, are older (therefore not as employable), and are allowed to keep 50 percent of their profit. They often live somewhere else, and are charged rental fees. This is a part of the sex worker world that is "seen," but there is an even darker world within the sex industry.

Many young women from neighboring countries are sold into the sex trade industry by their families or husbands. They don't speak the language, can't read or write, and arrive here—confused and alone. They are told that they have to buy their "freedom" back by working as prostitutes. Sometimes the girls are as young as eight years old. Buying their freedom can take years, since the madam always finds ways to fatten up the debt. Sometimes they simply lock the girl in a room, beaten, raped, and deprived of sunlight and companionship. Clients are then brought to her, one by one. She has no say, no rights. Her spirit broken, she stops fighting back (assuming she fights at all). She is not given condoms, and she doesn't ask for any because she doesn't know she needs to. Therefore, she is at high risk of contracting STIs and HIV/AIDS. If she becomes seriously ill, she is abandoned. Left homeless—without family, status, or friends—she will inevitably die.

YouthAIDS has managed to infiltrate this underground world. They have traveling doctors, who go into these brothels and will treat these young girls for STIs, HIV/AIDS, and pregnancies. This is a job that must be so unimaginably difficult. If the doctors go to the police (assuming the police are even interested), they run the risk of ruining the connection into that community. Then the girls’ lives are even more radically endangered. YouthAIDS' first plan of action was to enter into the system. The next is to initiate change.

April 02, 2007

A Playful, Yet Powerful, Presence

dharavi-slum.jpg
We were led to what was probably the “Main Street” of Dharavi. It was a fairly wide dirt roadway filled with garbage, of course, and a lot of activity. There were chickens, goats, dogs, children holding even smaller children, men working and loitering, and women in saris and burkas (the Hindi and Muslim population live quite peacefully together in Dhavari and often celebrate each others festivals) all milling about. The programs directors led us to a street performance already in progress. These young men perform on a daily basis in strategically located hot spots. In alignment with cultural traditions and Indian heritage, the Street Play Team employ folklore and ancient storytelling techniques to captivate its audience. The central focus of this team, through storytelling and entertainment, is to offer pertinent information related to HIV/AIDS and STIs. The content of the street plays usually include information on correct and consistent condom use and the features and benefits of STI treatment services at Key Clinics.

The performers spoke in Hindi, and there was a large crowd gathered around, mostly men and children. The characters were dressed colorfully and very animated and dramatic. This particular play was about three friends celebrating one young man's birthday. They decided he should visit a sex worker. Of course, the young man contracts an STI (I couldn't understand anything, but I got the general idea when the actor kept scratching himself). According to the crowd reaction, it was was hysterical, and they all seemed caught up in the storyline.

We were then taken to another area where we met Condom Man—an Indian man dressed in a large, red, inflatable plastic condom costume, complete with a smiley face, large shoes, and over-sized hands. He was dancing to music until a crowd formed around him. Then, other men began engaging the crowd to play simple awareness-related games. They used drawings or photos to illustrate, since most of the people in Dhavari are illiterate with little or, more likely, no education. Next to the table was a small tent where, in groups of eight, men were led inside and shown examples of what the different STIs looked like.

Sadly, we left Condom Man dancing in the dirt and continued walking through Dhavari. The people, like most of the people I've meet in India, were sweet and kind to us. I made eye contact and said hi often, since I was a guest in their home. It was important to me these people felt respected by our presence. Most of my "hellos" were met by smiles, handshakes, and offers of their precious, small supply of food.

We went to another area to watch another play. This one had men in drag, dressed in black wigs and colorful saris. Their makeup was running in the heat. This play was to raise awareness about having sex with male partners and transsexual street workers. I have seen transsexual sex workers and they are often quite attractive. But these street performers were the ugliest pretend women I have ever seen! I suppose it was deliberate, because the crowd laughed at their feeble attempt at femininity and stayed involved long enough to get the message.

I was incredibly impressed by the visibility and access that YouthAIDS has in this environment. YouthAIDS workers wear a blue or yellow coat to identify themselves to the people in the area. It has taken years of one-on-one and group outreach practices to cultivate trust among the men and women of Dharavi. They seem to understand that the intention of YouthAIDS is not to judge, exploit, or even rehabilitate. YouthAIDS is there to serve, educate, and encourage each person to take responsibility for his or her health and the wellness of the community in which they work and live.

Next, we were taken to one of the Key Clinics. The Key Clinic franchise was launched in 2004 to facilitate high quality STI screening and treatment. It is made up of qualified medical practitioners who operate their own clinics and provide affordable and accurate STI training for target groups. There are 12 Key Clinics in and around Dharavi, which are identified by a brand logo marketed toward target populations. The doctors are subjected to extensive quarterly thematic training on STI-related issues and sensitivity towards the needs of high-risk populations.

The office was clean and well-lit. We were broken into a few groups to meet the doctor because the room was too small to accommodate all of us. He was a middle age man who was polite and very confident in his role. He explained the different treatments he preforms. He sees mostly the male clients of sex workers treats thrush, genital herpes and warts, gonorrhea, HIV/AIDS, as well as, the common cold, scrapes, bruises, etc. He was very kind as he explained how he discusses condom use with the gentlemen and offered all of us a packet of Masti Condoms (marketed by PSI/YouthAIDS) to take with us.

We left the Key Clinic and were directed down the block to the local video parlor where a film was to be interrupted and a demonstration of condom use would take place. We were taken down a small road and led to a wrought iron ladder. It was completely rusted and flakes of metal fell off in my hands as I gripped it. I thought how grateful I am that I had that tetanus shot after all! We climbed the ladder up through a large hole and entered a fairly large, very dark space where a film was in progress. There were all men crowded in the dark space sitting on the floor. I walked towards the back and sat down on the floor before thinking about what usually goes on in this place. With my hands touching the bare floor, I got a little squeamish realizing that normally this dank theater shows nothing but porn. I couldn't imagine the things that go on in this room, and I was certain that there was no one mopping up afterwards! The energy was very creepy and dark, and I was uncomfortable sitting there among all those men even though I knew I was safe. I was grateful to leave once the YouthAIDS peer educators stopped the film and began their demonstration. They asked us to leave because they didn't want to make the men uncomfortable by having women present to watch.

This finally concluded our time in Dharavi. As we climbed back through the alleyway and onto the main roadway, I took inventory on my feelings and realized I felt sad, inspired, tired, hopeful, angry, and excited. I thought of Hala’s statement about "a country of contradictions." I knew precisely what she meant. We left and drove back toward the area in Mumbai where we were staying.

We were then taken to a large public movie theater where Bollywood movies play all day. The theatre was lively and everyone was talking and singing over the soundtrack. It was pretty wild. Everyone was very dressed up. It was clearly a more middle class crowd. We were escorted to the front and sat down to watch the film. It was hysterical. Bollywood films are elaborate and kitsch and completely delightful! The audience was almost as interesting as the film itself, with people talking in full voice, clearly enjoying themselves. YouthAIDS had staged another interruption at this theater as well. I asked, "Don't these people mind that their film is being interrupted?" Actually, no, they just go with it. They have no issue as long as it is entertaining. I could only imagine our reaction to something like in L.A. When they stopped the movie some members of Sanghamitra (a sex workers empowerment collective) got on stage and acted out scenarios from their lives. They showed police batterings, clients refusing to wear condoms, and being denied medical treatment. Then they showed how the collective supports one another, and what they are trying to do to empower themselves, each other, and fight for their rights. It was an amazing and inspiring demonstration and I got very curious about this collective of women, disenfranchised and illiterate, coming together to create change. I will find out much more about them later.

After they were done, Ashley went on stage and spoke about HIV/AIDS, correct and consistent use, and Key Clinics. She, as always, was articulate, humane, heartfelt, and clear.

When we got back to the hotel, through the glass door and into the grand lobby, standing on the polish marble floor, I was incredibly grateful to have this refuge to come back to. Walking through the main corridor to my room, I was looking forward to taking the bath that would remove the filth and stank of Dharavi from my skin. I was saddened by the thought though, of all the men, women, and children I met that day that will call that filth and stank, forevermore, their home.











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