Some of the same issues figure in the report from Mumbai,
although the context is very different. Whereas the Andhra Pradesh projects
were implemented in small cities with populations of less than a million people
each, Mumbai has around 18 million residents and was expected to be a
challenging environment for sex workers’ community mobilisation.
In-depth interviews and focus groups were conducted with people implementing the programme in 2012.
While the programme
emphasised condom use, many sex workers were more concerned about poverty,
extortion, stigma, harassment and other day-to-day challenges. Staff
expressed frustration with the narrow focus:
HIV “is one of the hundred issues [that sex workers face].
We are so focused on HIV because of which quality gets suffered. We should
think about other issues too but we are only about completing targets and not
really having comprehensive approach.”
In some areas, the
programme was implemented by newly created community-based organisations. These
were seen as having superficial roots and thought unlikely to survive when
Avahan funding came to an end.
But, in other areas, organisations which had a
long-standing local presence implemented the Avahan intervention, using the
additional funding to supplement their existing programmes. The services they
provided to sex workers were comprehensive and holistic; in these cases,
community mobilisation was more successful.
The Sonagachi Project,
which provided the blueprint for the community mobilisation element, was
developed with women working in brothels in a red-light district. The
diversification of the sex industry in Mumbai made community mobilisation more
More women were now meeting clients over the phone or
through their work in a bar. Many worked from their own home and only sold sex
occasionally to supplement their income as a market seller, construction worker
or housewife. Others travelled frequently, for example to community festivals,
in order to temporarily work in a new area. These women were much harder to
identify and to contact than women working in brothels or selling sex in the
Moreover, many of the women would deny that they were
involved in sex work and did not identify with ‘female sex worker’ as a label. Some
peer workers took a gradual approach with new contacts and were able to slowly
build trust. But those evaluating the Avahan programme expected things to be
clear cut, as one member of staff explained:
“Evaluators are trained to say “Are you a dhandewali [derogatory term for a
sex worker]?” Women get offended. ‘Why should you call me a ‘dhandewali’?
I am a woman first’. And so recently one evaluator at one site, in the
evaluation recorded zero marks because women had said no, I am not a sex
Collective organisation around a shared identity as sex
workers was therefore challenging. The problem was compounded by the great
diversity of women selling sex in Mumbai. Many women were migrants from across
India, from different cultural backgrounds, speaking different languages and
with different forms of sexuality. Respondents reported that there was often
mistrust and competition between different sex workers. There was not a pre-existing,
cohesive ‘community’ of sex workers which could be mobilised.
“This thing will not happen within a year, two years of
intervention. Getting all thousand women tested in a year two times is
possible, but getting these thousand women to sit together and discussing the
issue is a process. And that process is going to take time. And I don’t think
that anybody have that patience, for that process is really long drawn.”
Peer educators attempted
to liaise with the police, to prevent harassment and raids on brothels. This was generally unsuccessful. Many pimps and brothel owners were mistrustful
of the programme, suspecting the peer educators of co-operating with the police
on raids. As a result, these gatekeepers blocked access to ‘their sex
workers’ and prevented community mobilisation.