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Bengaluru tales: How social schemes are empowering sex workers

By Maitreyee Boruah

When Geetha, a senior member of Vijaya Mahila Sangha, a community-based organisation for sex workers in Bengaluru, addressed her colleagues recently, she clearly articulated their future road map.

Like Geetha, thousands of sex workers in India's IT hub want to be part of the mainstream society and enjoy all their rights.

Sex workers in Bengaluru

Social schemes bring social empowerment

One of the most marginalised sections of society, till a few years ago most of these women had no access to even a ration card, forget about having an Aadhar card.

Today things are different. Around 5,700 sex workers in the city have recently been benefited from various social security schemes and entitlements, which include, pension schemes, ration cards, Aadhar cards, Voter ID cards, Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), Jan Dhan Yojana scheme, legal services and loans, to name a few.

All these have been made possible by the Sahaya Single Window project under the aegis of the Centre for Advocacy and Research (CFAR), an NGO. It was first implemented in 2013.

"It is a community-based initiative where we work directly with the community members. We guide and empower them to take leadership roles and help to reach out to more and more women. Our main role is advocacy, where we bridge the gap between sex workers and government agencies to help these women get access to all social benefits. Under Sahaya Single Window project, we are also working with transgender community, another marginalised section," said Mahammad Shareef, Karnataka Programme Manager for CFAR.

Sex workers in Bengaluru

Sex workers fight stigma

According to statistics, Bengaluru has 15,000 registered sex workers from the underprivileged section. The actual figure is more than 30,000, say activists working with the community.

"It is a difficult life for us. First, we are poor women. Second, we are sex workers. Because of social stigma it was difficult for us to have access to any social benefits. Government authorities and police treat us as criminals. Sex work is not a crime. This is our profession. We earn our livelihoods and raise our families. We too have the rights to have access to all social benefits like others. Things are slowly changing for our betterment," said Geetha, a sex worker-turned-community leader.

Single window project brings changes

Under the Ministry of Women and Child Development and National Mission for Empowerment of Women (NMEW), the CFAR is running Sahaya Single Window project in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu.

"Across the seven districts of India-Bengaluru, Belgaum, Anantapur, East Godavari, Salem, Madurai and Solapur--where this mechanism of Single Window was set up, we have used camps and other interactive processes (such as taluk level grievance redress or convergence meetings) to reach out to sex workers and transgenders on vital schemes such as ICDS, Pension and Aadhar," said Shareef.

"After we brought all social schemes and entitlements under one roof, sex workers are getting better access to all these official benefits in all the four states, where we work. For instance, a total of 4,714 community members have got their Aadhar cards till date. While a total of 1,756 applications were filed for pension benefits, 670 have been sanctioned so far. A total of 1,251 applied for ration cards and 804 have got it," said an official of CFAR.

End violence

"We have the right to live. We don't join the profession by choice. Mostly, poverty forces us into sex work. Moreover, we can't remain in this profession forever. We need to be brought into the mainstream to end our plight. Along with social benefits, we need protection from law to end violence against us. We face violence on a daily basis. Be it from our partners or police, stigma and violence against sex workers are serious issues. These things need to be addressed," said Renuka Pattar, another sex worker-turned-community leader from Belgaum.

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