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Building Solidarity Amongst Diverse and Marginalised Communities at SANGRAM, Sangli: Part 2

Condoms are distributed by sex workers who work with SANGRAM and VAMP to educate and empower their peers.

This is the second part in a two-part series on SANGRAM’s work in Sangli. Read the first part here.

Finding the links

Every problem experienced by each of the communities we work with is underscored by a version of morality that is bigoted and deeply oppressive. Invisibility is a predicament shared by all. Sex workers, people living with HIV, and MSM have to hide their identity if they are to access health care, educational institutions, and housing, and women victims of domestic violence are often shamed into hiding their abuse.

Each group faces routine violence. For sex workers, violence is perpetrated by law enforcers, the gharwalis (brothel owners) and goondas (thugs), not to mention systemic state violence. Domestic and societal violence against women is endemic in the villages. MSM-T (T stands for Transgender) routinely encounter violence within family because they are female-presenting or are refusing marriage. Each of these groups has difficulty in accessing their property rights. Sex workers, because they leave the village, and despite sending money home, are cut out of property ownership by their families. MSM lose their rights over property when forced to leave home. Positive people are often compelled to sell their property to pay for treatment, and women in villages are denied property as daughters or wives in a narrow patriarchal order.

It is clear from this analysis that an overarching reality for all such communities is discrimination and stigma. For a variety of reasons, these people are disowned, isolated, and marginalised by adverse treatment by family and society. This amplifies each group’s vulnerability to HIV.

Discriminatory policies and divisive laws operate against them. For instance, the Immoral Traffic Prevention Act (1956) states that soliciting and living on the earnings of a sex worker is illegal, and there are a host of legal problems for sex workers associated with the conflation of trafficking and sex work. Under Section 377, people assume that sex between men is illegal because of its ‘unnatural’ status. Men who practice sex with men often lack the confidence to believe that what they are doing is not illegal. Though everyone has a constitutional right to health, poor implementation affects each of these marginalised groups. Moreover, there are no protective laws available to people who are sex workers, MSM or HIV-positive. Though there are laws to address domestic violence, access to justice for women is minimal due to lack of support and the misogyny of judges, police, etc.

This unrelenting experience of being unjustly treated can so easily have led to despondency, power struggles, and inertia amongst and between these communities. However, there is noticeable unity between the MSM, sex workers, rural women, and people living with HIV who are associated with SANGRAM, which often appears lacking in HIV and AIDS organisations elsewhere. We are often asked, what ties these communities together in Sangli?

Not an NGO but a movement

The roots of this solidarity are embedded in the ideology of the organisation. Rather than enrolling staff and volunteers as workers in an NGO, each person joins SANGRAM/VAMP with the knowledge that they are becoming part of a social justice movement. Though they may have job descriptions and titles, each person is encouraged to adopt an activist identity, which has the effect of expanding people’s commitment beyond doing a particular job. As activists, everyone works towards the same goal—the removal of social inequality. They work from a united platform towards achieving this.

HIV is a leveller­­­­

When it comes to saving people’s lives, each person at SANGRAM, irrespective of which program they are in, is aware that assisting people is not conditional; helping people does not depend on who they are, what they do or what kind of sex they practice. HIV is the focus, not the person’s identity. This comes from the knowledge that HIV, as a virus, does not discriminate.

Issue relevance

Everyone at SANGRAM recognises that the issues being taken up in each project are relevant to everyone, rather than being related to the target group of any given project. For example, if the women sex workers are working hard to make health facilities more accessible to their constituency, it is very clear to the men in our support group Muskan, or to the staff on our District Campaign, that it benefits their constituency as well. This encourages cohesion between the populations because it sets up an order where no one project has priority over the other. Ultimately, all projects are working towards the same goal, which is removal of stigma and discrimination of all marginalised people. This position is reflected when a morchha (protest) is called. It is never planned under the banner of any one project; rather, it is organised under the banner of SANGRAM/VAMP.

The Key to Success?

There are many explanations for the success of building solidarity between these diverse and marginalised communities in Sangli. A few:

Because rights is the foundation for our work, not identity.

Because our focus is HIV and its prevention/care, etc. and NOT targeted intervention.

Because we use a peer approach that has evolved from the ground up. In other words, the sex workers, MSM, rural women, and positive people are peers. The uptake of the rights approach is not because it is being imposed from outside. Peers have experienced rights violations themselves and they realise how best to implement rights according to their needs.

Because of cross-training. When new people enter the organisation, they are not only equipped with training on how to deal with issues pertaining to their constituency’s lives. MSM are trained on the problems of sex workers; rural women are trained on sex workers rights; HIV-positive people are informed about MSM issues, and so on. This reiterates the mission of SANGRAM, which is addressing injustice, not the problems of one or two particular groups.

Because of inter-project training. Rather than separating groups according to their identity, inter-project training is encouraged. This fosters an environment where learning through personal interaction with people different from oneself replaces assumptions, prejudice, and false notions.

Because there are mechanisms in place which foster this inter-understanding of each other’s issues. For example, in the weekly coordinators’ meeting an exchange of resources and information takes place between projects.

And finally, because relationships between staff have been built over time and through participation. It is no longer expected one project needs an invitation to another’s events. Friendship between the groups’ members sustains participation.