December 2009 Ajmer District, Sarwar Village, Rajasthan
Over the last few months I have been working with the long distance truckers who are the bridge population carrying and spreading STD’s and HIV/Aids throughout India. I was also eager to set up health camps with India’s female sex workers.
Dubbed the oldest profession in the world, female sex workers are a high-risk group for contracting STD’s and HIV. According to the National Aids Control Organization 2.5 million people have HIV/Aids in India.
In most of the developing and developed countries I have travelled in, sex workers seem to be out in the open and more visible. In my time traveling in India, I haven’t been aware of prostitutes as they are more hidden, but very much there for those in the know.
One hundred and fifty kilometers south of Jaipur is Ajmer District and the Village of Sarwar. Sarwar has a high population of sex workers. Rajasthan State Aids Society (RSACS) and Vatsalya have been working with the Village providing education, counselling and medical advice. Today, Dirty Wall Project and Vatsalya gathered at the office and after loading medicines into our jeep, the ten of us piled in for the two-hour drive south. Squished, cramped and happy we passed every motorized vehicle ever made from two wheels to twelve wheels. Fifty kilometers from Sarwar we picked up three more men. They are local counselors and peer educators from the area.
A week earlier I had asked if it was possible to get a woman counselor, as we would be attending to the needs of women. India is a male dominated country and after much discussion my request was denied. They claim that women were more comfortable speaking with men. I disagree, as I believe women would be more comfortable speaking with a woman especially given the context to be discussed. This will be an argument I won’t lose for the next camp.
With thirteen people now in the jeep, we continued on our way passing goat herders, water buffalo and farming communities.
Sarwar is an urban village consisting of mainly one or two level buildings with a mix of both Muslim and Hindu residents. Groups of children followed our jeep as we neared the campsite.
Our camp today was in a one level unfinished building made of brick consisting of three rooms and a staircase to nowhere. Inside women sat on the floor in a mix of brightly colored saris. Whispers and giggles echoed off the brickwork as I entered carrying our medicines. RSACS had also sent three people down to work with us administering blood tests.
The team expected to see 60-70 people during the camp but that number was soon exceeded. Women and curious children filled every room of the small building and we were filling prescriptions hand over fist immediately.
I had invited Dr. Ruth Kornfield who I had met at my guesthouse, to come with us to this camp. She is a seasoned traveller and a researcher of HIV/Aids. She also works as a consultant to large NGO’s from every corner of the globe. Ruth and I were invited into the home of one of Vatsalya’s peer educators who is also a current sex worker. She showed us the modest home she shares with her family. The room where she works is painted a pale blue with posters of male Bollywood stars. Over the course of an hour, with Omprakesh and Pradeep translating, we were able to ask her questions regarding her profession and well being.
Her husband is a long distance trucker who is away for three weeks at a time. Her daughter is also a sex worker. When asked about condoms, she stated that she refuses sex without a condom. I asked her if she ever faces abuse or problems when refusing a customer who wishes for unprotected sex. She answered with a silent shake of the head. There was a quiet sadness to this lady and I believe there were things she wished not to speak of. My help was needed back at the camp and I left Ruth and Pradeep to ask more questions as I felt she might relax with less of a crowd in her small room.
When I returned to the camp the Doctors were in full swing and Dr. Rahul called to me. In his usual jovial way he asked why I make him work so hard as he pointed to a line of women snaking into the next room. I pointed to the waiting room where thirty more women sat and waited. With a cheeky smile and something mumbled in Hindi to the woman he was examining he continued on.
The local paper had sent a reporter to the camp. Pradeep, Omprakesh and I wrote a quick press release detailing our involvement. The reporter took a few photos and he left to file the story.
Children had come from all over the village and we had to close the metal gates to keep the camp somewhat under control. A local teacher from the area asked me to come with him. As we walked to his home, children pulled on my shirttails and circled curiously around us. He was very eager to show me his home and his cows of which he was very proud. Through a small archway sat two large cows and a newborn calf. After marveling over his cows, he introduced me to his sons and offered me chai. Sipping the chai he thanked me profusely for coming to his village and providing free medicines.
The daylight hours were soon ending and we had a 160km drive ahead of us. But, before we were to leave we had been invited to the sacred Mazar (tomb) of Hazrat Khwaja Fakhruddin, a great saint and scholar. Pradeep, myself and twenty giggling children walked while the rest of the team rode in the jeep. A new batch of children followed me as I was shown around. Upon entering a Muslim tomb men must cover their heads. I had nothing to cover my head until a boy of about 7 years of age offered me his skullcap. I accepted his offering and after several attempts to get it over my large head, I placed it on top of my head, much to the joy of the children surrounding me. After being lead through large silver doors I entered a beautifully adorned room. The ceiling’s centerpiece is a massive crystal chandelier hanging seven feet from the ceiling. A beautiful green tapestry adorned with Muslim symbols hung from the roof. Worshippers form a single line and as I got close to the silver altar, a man roughly washed my face with a broom made of peacock feathers. Upon reaching the altar and bending at my knees, a blanket was then pulled over top of me as I pressed my palms and forehead to the marble floor. A Muslim man chanted and beat a rhythym on my back until he decided it was the next man’s turn. Leaving the room I found my small friend and returned his scull cap and nothing but a smile was asked for in return.
A large crowd had gathered at the front of the temple as Omprakesh started the jeep. More than fifty men, women and children grabbed and pulled at us making a quick exit impossible. Omprakesh maneuvered his way through the crowd and I jumped on the back of the jeep, finding a seat on the spare tire. We drove through the narrow streets, people waved and stared and we felt as though we were in a parade. The jeep gathered speed and I held on for dear life. Although this is a dangerous way to travel, men are always seen hanging from vehicles on the roads here and it provides an ideal way of seeing the country side but also a scary first hand view of impending danger.
Eighty kilometers from Jaipur we pulled off the main highway once again and onto a dirt road. Four low level buildings sat in the middle of flat, parched brown earth. As we got closer I ducked my head into the jeep to inquire where we were going. The jeep came to a sudden stop and a cloud of dust and dirt covered the jeep and me. Omprakesh jumped out and told me that this was a brothel. Vatsalya has one peer educator here and he wanted to show me another side of the sex worker’s trade.
The sun was setting and gave the area a purple hue as children emerged from around the building and women stood in the doorways. The scene seemed surreal to me. As we reached the buildings women and some very young girls holding children of their own came to speak to us. These four buildings in the middle of nowhere are a self-contained community of sex workers. Children play in between the buildings and chase dogs across the dirt yard while women sit hunched over small fires cooking dinner.
Pradeep and I walked further in and he showed me where the women take their customers. The rooms were small, bare, with tiny crooked beds and an appalling lack of cleanliness. This is not only their brothel but also their home. Children are raised, meals are prepared and eaten and lives are lived in these conditions. While I was standing there, two men entered the yard and began speaking to a young woman of about eighteen. They were negotiating on a price and which one of the females would service them. Pradeep told me depending on age and beauty, a woman can go for as little as $1 Canadian.
Vatsalya routinely drops off medicine and condoms to the women here and I could see that there was a good rapport between the groups. I felt that it wasn’t appropriate to take pictures here.
One thing that I have come to notice during my time in India is the brutal honesty about everything. With a billion people in their country, privacy is not a luxury they are granted. Every faction of their lives is lived in full view of others. I find this very humbling and difficult to witness. In westernized countries we cover up our problems and hide them from view.
India has many problems, but if you’re willing to help, the people of India are willing to show you their lives for better or worse.
As we piled back into the jeep I claimed my spot on the rear tire and looking back I saw women and children smiling and waving.
India – forever humbling.
Stats for the day
- 171 women were examined and given free medicine.
- 70 women were blood tested for HIV
- the total cost – 14,400 INR or $327 CAD
aids, hiv, India, travel, volunteer