During the second week in India we spent our time visiting the town of Nashik. This town was much bigger than Loni, there was even a stoplight at one intersection (a very rare sighting). The purpose of this trip was to visit the HIV and STI NGOs (non government funded organizations) that were working there. The primary NGO that we visited was called the MUKTA project. This project focused on decreasing the prevalence of HIV/AIDs and STIs in female sex workers (FSW), men seeking men (MSM), and migrant workers. The work done with these three populations is similar, but there are also differences in the things they do for these different groups.
The thing that all of these populations have in common is the access to peer health educators (PHE). When starting this project the people of MUKTA recognized that people respond better to receiving advice and information from someone that they can look at as one of them, an equal. So out of each population they recruit and train several people that can act as advocates for their respective groups. These PHE are trained to teach and promote proper condom use, talk to the authorities and stake holders of the NGO, and to do many other things.
We had the opportunity to talk to a panel of PHEs of the FSW and MSM population one day and they volunteered to answer any doubt (question) that we had. We asked them about what they do as a PHE, what they like about it, for the FSW how it became their profession and how they became PHEs. When asked their favorite part they told us that they liked helping others and counseling them on how to have safe sex, they liked the feeling of being needed by/ helping their peers, and they liked the opportunities they have had to work with stake holders for this project and feeling like they are making a difference.
This concept of having peer health educators is what I appreciated the most about this project. Originally I thought MUKTA's main obejctive would be to end prostitution, but instead they are working to empower these women and men who were treated as lepers of society in a way. They are teaching them how to do their work in the safest way possible. they also recognize that they (the MUKTA project) may not be around forever, so they have taught these women how to access things on their own as well by getting them identification, ration cards, and bank accounts.
In addition to providing condoms and testing for HIV and STIs every 6 months they have also started a daycare facility for these women's children who would otherwise be roaming around the streets while their mothers worked. Aside from teaching them how to practice safe sex this program has also taught the people in these populations that they matter and that people do care about them.
After learning about everything that MUKTA does for FSW, MSM, and migrant workers they sent us into the field to visit three brothels. Before arriving I hadn't put much thought into what i would see or how it would make me feel, so when I arrived I was visibly shocked and I felt as if I had lost the ability to talk.
We were basically in these women's office. Which was a room that reminded me of the dirt room in my grandpa's basement (which I grew up believing was the home of an alligator). There were no walls and the women sat on what was bench seating formed out of packed mud and rocks. We sat in these seats with them, in a circle, and were told to ask questions. As we began to have conversations with these women, men started to gather outside. Some seemed to be there to look at the strange looking Americans, but it was also very clear that they were looking at these women in a way that I have never seen before. Shortly after sitting down one guy came up and placed something in a girls hand then continued to walk back into a room. This girl followed him and the conversation continued to flow as if nothing had happened. I felt like my throat was tied in knots, these girls were all so young and for one reason or another they have come here to this place where they both live and work and every day is full of the same.
The MSM population was quite different than that of the FSW, or at least what we saw of them. Our field experience with them involved them dressing up in drag and dancing to Indian music. This occured at night. We were brought back to the community center where we saw a whole new atmosphere from earlier in the day. It had transformed and the people had transformed. Earlier we met an MSM named Raoul who showed us some of his dances proudly. Later that evening he and many other friends had changed into beautiful saris, curled their hair, and put make up. It truly was a transformation. There were people filling the room just gathered to watch them dance because, as were informed upon arrival, "the MSMs are all really good dancers."
The last we saw were the migrant workers. Many of the woman worked in the plastic factory, which was filled with old plastic, mainly from grocery bags. When we got there a girl actually waded through the plastic to see us and it was up to her hips. The men worked in the cotton factory where they produced sheets. This factory was so loud that you couldn't even hear the words of the person standing next to you, and not a single worker had ear plugs. The conditions were not good, but they were all happy to have a job that would help put food on their families table.
Throughout this whole trip we saw so much more than I had imagined. Although I described a lot of it here it would take me so much longer to describe everything that I have learned from seeing these people and staying in this town for four days.