SO. Let’s talk about SAKSHAM II.
This project is also going to be coming to an end this year, and there is no planned extension. The community-based organizations (CBOs) are supposed to be self-sufficient at this point so they will be able to continue the work the NGOs started. There is a bit of a conflict of interest here though: for the NGOs, these projects are their work – their livelihood – so handing it off means they’re out of a job. Consequently, I understand there has been some lagging in this respect as the local NGOs aren’t particularly motivated to give up the reins on the CBO leadership. As I was preparing for this trip, I did some reading on the failure of aid and problems with the current development scheme. This is an issue which has been raised and I think is worth noting now: we can’t afford to forget that the purpose of development is service, not job security. By its own definition, development means that there is progress towards some goal – ideally, independence, self-sufficiency, self-determination – all those good things should be in there somewhere. International development is an interesting field and I can understand people who want to do this as a career, but I think sometimes we have to be careful about keeping our own interests in check. When we come from a position of privilege, we already have structures in place looking out for our interests and security; people coming from underprivileged backgrounds have none of this. Our job is to enable them to advocate on their own behalf, not create a structure that allows only other people to do it for them.
Sex work here, as in Canada, is not legal. I’m still not 100% sure of the laws, but from what I understand, it’s the solicitation that’s a problem, and brothels are not allowed. Home-based sex work, which is actually the majority here, is ok. Most of the women who go into sex work do it for reasons of extreme poverty, but there are a couple pockets where it’s accepted as a way of life and has been in place for generations. There is not much link with drug use here in AP, the women are just unbelievably poor and have no other option. They are complete outcasts in their communities, which makes the idea of CBOs not only attractive in the community sense, but also necessary because a lone, isolated, and ostracized woman is a very vulnerable woman. As bad as the women here have it, though, I think the MSM might have it worse. Homosexuality is still considered illegal. There is simply no avenue to be openly gay – in fact, I’m not sure the word is even used. Of course, I asked about the terminology of “MSM” versus “homosexual” or “gay” or “male sex worker.” My contact told me that most of the men who have sex with men aren’t homosexual, they’re bisexual, married, and usually have a family. I’m not sure this jives with our usual definition of bisexual – to me, these seem like gay men who can’t live openly and have wives just because that’s the cultural expectation. I’m sure there is a bi group in there, but MSM also comprises the trans community. I did not ask if these individuals considered themselves MSM or FSW. I think, if you were born with XY chromosomes and made it through puberty, regardless of how you choose to identify yourself, you are considered a man for most purposes here in India. And there were “genetic” men at this meeting yesterday, some who described themselves as male sex workers, and I think the rest were trans. Essentially, using “MSM” describes a certain behavior that puts these individuals at risk, rather than giving them a label. For the same reason, we say “female sex worker” as opposed to “prostitute:” describing the work is less judgmental than applying a derogatory term to the individuals in this practice. I think it is so difficult for most MSM to be out at all that this community is very hard to mobilize. The men who are having sex with men but are married to women cannot just become a community leader for a CBO and attend a two-day meeting in another city without raising some questions, and since this would potentially put his life and livelihood at risk, it’s understandable that reaching this group is particularly difficult.
One thing I learned, and that I’m still having a hard time wrapping my head around, is the sheer magnitude of the population here involved in sex work. Obviously, it’s a reflection of the population of India, but it’s still hard for me to fathom at times. When I think of a CBO in the context of a community association in Canada, I think of maybe 30-50 people. Here, a CBO is thousands of sex workers. There are 55 groups (this includes CBOs, CBO/NGO partner groups, and NGO-led groups) which can reach over quite a geographic spread. I mean, there are 84.6 million people in this state, which is smaller in geographical area than Labrador. There are over 27,000 female sex workers (FSW) and men who have sex with men (MSM) registered under these projects – but obviously that’s only representative of the areas in which this project has had success, it’s not a census. So when you think of the scope of this project, the idea of CBOs at this level is really quite ambitious. The fact that it’s been successful is extraordinary.
The meeting was… ok. I’m going to have to be honest – I wasn’t super thrilled with being asked to document a bunch of presentations that were in languages I couldn’t understand. It’s not a great use of my time, I don’t think. Some of the slides were in English, so I could get that info, but it seemed like a lot of repetition between groups so I’m sure what they were saying would have done wonders in helping me to understand the differences in the approaches these CBOs were taking. The meeting was held at a residential school and we were in the auditorium. There was some AC and the fans were on, but the power kept cutting out which made it absolutely unbearable. There must have been over 120 of us in that room. There were two MCs who made the opening remarks and guided the course of the day. All the visiting NGO partners, guests, and visitors were presented with flowers (including me). Then they lit a lamp, which I’m sure has symbolic significance but I’m too ignorant to know really what it was for. The presentations were done by the CBO leaders (who are democratically elected by their CBO members). There was also singing and dancing interspersed between the presentations. I was surprised at how the audience behaved during the presentations, though. I would have thought that because these women (and men) had had to rise to positions of leadership from positions of very low status, they would be a little more considerate of each other when they were speaking. If you know what it’s like to be ignored and considered unimportant, wouldn’t you try NOT to make someone else feel that way? But cell phones were going off and were being answered right there in the auditorium, people were talking, walking in and out… and when they decided they’d had enough of someone, they would just start clapping to shut them up and get them off the dias. Though I couldn’t understand much, it didn’t seem like there were any major epiphanies that came of this meeting. I’m going to have to write out some questions and get someone to help me dig a little deeper to really understand what’s going on that makes these groups successful. They kept talking about community mobilization, advocacy with the police, etc, but they don’t say HOW they’re doing this. I’m pretty sure you can’t just walk up to a sex worker on the street and say “Hey, let’s mobilize and start a community.” There’s got to be a little more to it than that.
I think I promised you stories of lunch and staring games. Lunch was served in a big dining hall, cafeteria-style. You pick up a round metal tray from a pile, then go through the line. They put a big mound of white rice in the middle, then all the other things around the side (some spicy rice, a chicken dish, a vegetable dish, curd, a dessert biscuit thing…). Then you sit and use your right hand to break up the chunks of white rice and mix the other things into it – and then you use your hand to put the rice in your mouth. It’s messy, everyone has rice and the associated juices all over their hands. I don’t think there’s any way to do this elegantly. I was pretty slow at it, but I think they liked that I was trying. I didn’t really have much choice, there was no cutlery available and it was after 2pm and I was so hungry I was shaking. They gave me way too much food, I couldn’t finish my tray, but others were going back for seconds and thirds. The food was so hot (spice wise and temperature wise) that my right hand was tingling for hours after. You know if you cut up jalapenos and don’t wear rubber gloves? It was like that, whole hand.
So while I’m learning to eat like a toddler again and trying not to make a mess, people are staring at me. It happens as soon as I walk into the hotel lobby; the staff are used to me now and are very nice and polite, but I think I might be the only white guest so the other guests are looking. In the car, other drivers, passengers, and bystanders just stare as we drive by. I try to avoid eye contact, especially with men as I understand direct looks can be considered provocative or something. But it’s really an uncomfortable feeling, being constantly watched. I’m not being harassed or anything, just stared at. I’m not usually self-conscious in Canada, but here, I can’t help but be aware of the attention. Especially when I’m eating, or trying to figure out where I’m going, or anything like that. I know I’m supposed to be “culturally sensitive” and everything, but I’m not sure why it’s considered perfectly acceptable to stare here and how I’m supposed to be totally ok with it. We’re always taught it’s impolite to stare in Canada, and I think most of the West, so even though they may not mean anything by it, my instinctive reaction is to feel like I’m being treated rudely. I don’t expect it to stop, which means that I just have to get used to it. I can say that for the women I met yesterday, when I did make eye contact and offered a small smile, I usually got one back and they were happy to shake my hand. But other people and children just continue to stare.
A little more about Hyderabad… My hotel does have AC; the car does not. This means that we drive with all the windows open and enjoy the variety of smells and particulates in the air. I think the air quality here is actually worse than in New Delhi, but it may just be the area I’m in. There are these open dumps basically right at the side of the road, and a lot of tire stores (?). Based on the smell, perhaps tire recycling. And this weird sulfurous rotten egg smell on top of it all. On my way to the school where the meeting was being held, we passed all these small herds of goats and chicken flocks outside the stores. I’m guessing they were for dinner.
Remember when I said only men wear helmets on motorcycles? I guess it’s only the law in New Delhi – no one at all wears helmets here.
Hair scrunchies are popular. As per SATC, no one’s from New York.
A clown car joke would make absolutely no sense here. I can’t believe how many people can fit in a rickshaw, I’ve seen whole families stuffed in, with luggage.
Tatas come by their reputation honestly as crappy cars. I witnessed an accident – fenderbender really – between a Tata and rickshaw yesterday. I think the back bumper was completely off the car, and he was only hit at about 15kph. By a rickshaw, no less.