Originating from a small village in rural Maharashtra, Priya was married off at a young age in an arranged marriage. Priya and her husband lived in the village for four years, where her husband refused to work or provide Priya with any money to cover her basic needs.
In dire need of a source of income, Priya met a group of women who brought her to Mumbai and showed her the ropes on how to become a street-based sex worker. She says she clearly remembers their words as if they were said just yesterday, ‘Just stand here and men will automatically come to you’.
Priya has now been a sex worker for the past 16 years. Her husband has since joined her in Mumbai and is unaware of her profession. Priya got involved with Aastha Parivaar five years ago through Peer Educators efforts in her community, and now she is a Peer Educator herself. She educates fellow sex workers on the risks of HIV and importance of practicing safe sex and distributes condoms at monthly CBO health camps.
Priya does not think she will ever change livelihood as she does not have the training or expertise for another profession; however, she does not say this with sadness. She is earning money for herself and for her two daughters, and with Aastha Parivaar’s support, practices safe sex and maintains good health.
Priya feels empowered and independent and does not want or desire any extra assistance other than the condom and healthcare provisions she already received. As long as she is healthy, and her children are provided for, she is satisfied. For her, sex work is a means of achieving this goal with which she is satisfied.
How does Priya keep herself healthy and safe? Often this is not easy. Priya told Aastha Parivaar in detail:
How you keep safe individually and the what are safe sex practices you follow?
Since when are you following these? And why?
For more than four years now. Earlier, I did not know where I would get condoms or anything about testing. I didn't even know how important it is to keep in good health for our profession. Now, I get testing, check-ups and condoms from our counsellor who is from Aastha. It is simple, I want to live and earn for more years. I want to earn for my daughters and want to stay HIV free and disease free.
How do you ensure others around you follow safe practices?
I know it has helped me to be safe so now I don’t take customers without condoms. Also, I have learnt skills to negotiate with them to use condoms. It is not an easy skill because everyone is different, but I learned with practice. Now, I can convince them by talking sweetly and if required strictly.
I also talk to other girls, young girls especially, and tell them about testing, check-ups and condom use. You know, it’s important to spread knowledge. I give this information to girls whom I meet while waiting for the customers on the street. I tell them about my experiences that everyone likes to hear and new information that I have like – different flavoured condoms, the paan one is really liked; the pleasures you can get from the dotted ones and other such information. The girls want to know about these new things.
As individual, how do you negotiate safe sex practices with customers and what do you do when condoms are not available?
I don’t take customers who do not want to use condoms. I always carry enough condoms so that the customer does not give any excuse. I tell them that any one of us could be suffering from some infection and if we go without a condom it can risk our lives. Sometimes I also say that your family is also at risk if you do sex without condom. I tell them that I know some skills which will make the experience enjoyable with condoms. I can take condoms from the outlets or office anytime. I also keep some with the lodges or gharwalis where I take the customers. There is a less possibility of not getting condoms anywhere. Also, nowadays some clients are carrying foreign made condoms which are flavoured, ribbed etc.
How do you ensure condom is used when resisted? Or when the room is dark?
When we are bargaining with the customers for money we tell them clearly that no condom no sex. But if they still insist then we try and negotiate and encourage them to use condoms. We have learnt so many ways to communicate with clients for condom use. We have also learnt how to open a condom packet in the dark, put it in with our mouth and other ways, and know if the condom is not expired and good to use. We tell our regular clients/partners that sex could be more erotic as a reward for condom use.
How have these practices helped you and your health?
It is not easy to negotiate condom use with clients who are drunk or could be violent. But we try to be careful with such clients. These practices have helped us to stay protected. We can be sure that we will not get infected unless a client tears the condom but then we immediately go for a checkup at the clinic.
What do you feel is missing? Do you feel you need added protection against HIV?
I feel sometimes if a condom breaks, then there is a risk. This has happened to me and some girls I know. I feel the protection pill (PrEP) will help us with such issues. It will also be helpful if our customers took the pill.
To protect the identity, the person/s in the picture is/are model/s and names have been changed.
Aastha Parivaar is a federation of sex workers that educates people from various background, genders and ages on safe sex practices. Love Matters India and Aastha Parivaar join hands to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS in December, which is also HIV/AIDS Awareness Month.