Mohan H L

STRIVE partner joins expert committee for sex workers

28 April 2016
Priya Pillai

Mohan H L, Managing Trustee of the Karnataka Health Promotion Trust (KHPT), has been invited to become a member of the Expert Committee for the Welfare of Sex Workers constituted by the Government of Karnataka state, in India. STRIVE congratulates Mohan on this appointment.

STRIVE research in HIV prevention for female sex workers 

Within the STRIVE consortium, KHPT is conducting two important randomised controlled trials (RCTs), both based on more than a decade of work of organising female sex workers (FSWs) for HIV prevention through collective empowerment, as Mohan describes below. Arising from this experience, KHPT recognised two important needs: 

  1. While previous programmes were effective in reducing violence against FSWs by clients and police, the women continued to experience violence from their non-paying, intimate partners. This recognition led to Samvedana Plus, an RCT within the STRIVE portfolio to address this form of partner violence. 
  2. By the time young FSWs came to benefit from participation within sex worker collectives, many were already HIV positive. KHPT recognised the necessity of engaging girls at an earlier point in their lives and embarked on the Samata trial, an intervention to keep girls in school for longer, a structural measure that is proven to be protective against HIV infection as well as other health and social harms.

Expert Committee for the Welfare of Sex Workers

Smt. (the Honourable) Jayamala, a Member of Legislative Council, is the chair of the 16-member committee set up under the aegis of the Department of Women and Child Development and inaugurated formally on 5 May 2015 by Smt. Umashree. Along with women in sex work and organisations working with transgender populations, the state-level panel includes sociologists, educationists, doctors, writers, civil society actors, women activists and nominated members from government departments. 

The move is seen as a significant development for women in the sex work and transgender populations fighting for their rights to work and other entitlements. 

In conversation with Mohan H L 

Priya Pillai of KHPT interviews Mohan H Lon the mandate of the committee and the significance of KHPT’s role in it. 

The Government of Karnataka has appointed an expert committee to formulate a policy to address the problems faced by women in sex work and transgender population. This initiative is the first of its kind of in the state. What led to the government’s decision to form the committee at this point? 

There has been a series of discussions going on in the public domain, with writers and religious leaders such as K.S. Nissar Ahmed and Mathe Mahadevi and even former law minister M C Nanaiah proposing that the state legalise sex work. The government has identified women in sex work and transgender people as marginalised groups and wants to better understand their issues and concerns. The establishment of this committee is a step towards formulating a comprehensive policy to protect the rights of these groups.

It’s been close to a year since the committee was formed. What has been the progress? 

There are two subgroups within the committee – one to work on the issues of women in sex work and the other on transgender people. The sub-committee on women in sex work has met and identified areas of concern that need to be better studied. Some of these include issues related to traditional sex workers, migration and sex work, trafficking of minors, violence against sex workers and the government facilities available for sex workers. Smaller groups with members from the committee and external experts in the area have been commissioned to conduct studies in these areas.   

Could you elaborate on the mandate of the committee, specifically on what policy outcomes we can expect? 

It’s too early to comment on policy outcomes as the formative studies are still going on. However, the committee’s focus is on advising the government on ways to respond to the needs of the women in sex work. The study groups aim to come out with clear evidence that will inform its recommendations to the government on policy formulation. 

KHPT has been invited to be part of the 16-member committee. What led to the government’s decision to invite KHPT to contribute to the study and policy development? 

KHPT has had a long association with the sex worker and sexual minorities population in the state. Our programmes have been working with women in sex work to prevent and respond to violence and enable them to access entitlements. We reached 64,000 women in sex work in the state through our interventions, the most extensive reach of any organisation with this group in Karnataka. KHPT facilitated the creation and/or strengthening of many of the existing community based organisations (CBOs) led by sex workers, as well as building institutions and cooperative societies as part of our HIV/AIDS interventions from 2003 to 2010.   

KHPT’s work cuts across health, education, violence against women and community institution building. Which specific aspect of the organisation’s work do you see as contributing to the task at hand? 

We have worked towards empowering 64,000 women in sex work and their institutions through capacity building and training. In the recent past, KHPT, in partnership with 16 CBOs led by women in sex work and six civil society partners and UN Women, implemented a programme, Samvedana, which was successful in reducing violence against sex workers from the judiciary and police, helping them access alternate livelihood programmes from the government, creating a cadre of sex worker paralegal volunteers and forming crisis management teams within CBOs to respond to violence within 24 hours. So, there is close to a decade of understanding of sex workers’ lives and issues and direct experience of working with these groups that we bring to the table. 

Currently, we are part of two global consortia, STRIVE and What Works to End Violence against Women and Girls, implementing two large intervention research trials, Samata and Samvedana Plus, on ensuring education of girls from traditional sex work communities and reducing intimate partner violence against women in sex work. We are hopeful that the research findings will contribute significantly to better tackle the issue of violence against girls and women and their lives, specifically from the sex worker community. 

Are there policy or other changes for which KHPT has successfully advocated with the government to benefit sex workers? 

In 2010, KHPT advocated successfully with the Rajiv Gandhi Housing Corporation Limited, set up by the Government of Karnataka, to include sex workers and sexual minorities as beneficiaries under a special category housing scheme. This was a significant achievement towards the social inclusion of these minority groups, as programmes typically tend to exclude these groups due to structural and systemic imbalances. 

KHPT successfully advocated the funding for targeted interventions to go to the CBOs led by women in sex work as the Avahan programme transitioned to state funding. Karnataka is the only state in India, where sex worker CBOs implement 50% of the interventions. We also advocated with the state government to provide space for sex workers in relevant district and state level forums where issues related to women in sex work are discussed. 

We have also successfully engaged with the Women and Child Development department to provide those sex workers who wanted to start their own livelihood enterprises with loans. 

What is KHPT’s stated policy on sex work/prostitution? 

KHPT supports the dignity of sex workers, opposes any form of violence against sex workers and any system that exploits them and believes that the state is obliged to protect the human and constitutional rights of sex workers. 

Image: Mohan H L of Karnataka Health Promotion Trust. Image credit: K V Balasubramanya