Monday, September 25, 2023

The New Legal Eagles

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A project in AP and Karnataka has empowered sex workers by making them paralegal volunteers. As they are made aware of their rights, a confident community is fighting exploitation and domestic violence

By Ramesh Menon in Bengaluru and Anantapur

Sex workers in poverty-stricken Anan-tapur district of Andhra Pradesh, like anywhere else in India, have often battled discrimination, exploitation and domestic violence. They have faced frequent harassment by the police and many say they were forced to offer sex to them for free. But now, a growing number of empowered sex workers here are using legal services to protect themselves and secure their rights and see light at the end of a dark tunnel.

Many of them have become paralegal volunteers and are going from door-to-door sensitizing sex workers about their rights and even helping them file cases. This is a part of many other projects run by Delhi-based Centre for Advocacy and Research (CFAR) to facilitate social inclusion of sex workers across programmes and schemes.
Renuka Pattar, working with Shakthi AIDS Tadegattuva Mahila Sangh, a community-based organization in Karnataka, says that women constantly needed help from the police and the legal community to fight incessant violence at work.

Mangladevi, a paralegal volunteer, says: “When we went to train the police force in sensitization towards sex workers, we found that they all blamed us as they felt that we had got into the profession to make easy money. I told them that I too was from a good family like them, but as I was deserted by my violent husband and had two children to support, I was forced into sex work. I saw how their attitude changed. Some had tears in their eyes. The police is also human.”
Adds Radha, another paralegal volunteer: “The police attitude changed only after a lot of advocacy. Once they see our paralegal volunteer identity card, they listen to us. We have got new respect. We are no more cross-questioned.”

One of the places where trafficking is rampant is Kadiri as it borders the poverty-stricken districts of Kadappa, Chittoor and Anantapur, where women are trafficked to Bengaluru, Pune and Mumbai. Ramadevi, a community coordinator, says: “Many of the women are single and helpless. We have to sensitize the local population into seeing them as humans who are victims of circumstances so that they do not morally abhor them.”

Anantapur is one of the four districts in the Rayalaseema region which have seen frequent famines and is so one of the most economically vulnerable areas. This makes it a fertile ground for trafficking of women. Human development and poverty indices put Anantapur as one of the worst in Andhra Pradesh.

Akhila Sivadas, executive director, CFAR, says: “Most of the sex workers have a history of violence, be it at the hands of the police, clients or husbands. But with legal knowledge at their command now, they are able to challenge it. We are getting community-based organizations to spearhead the process of getting them pensions and other government facilities so that their quality of life improves. The challenge is to enable the community of sex workers to get mainstreamed and reduce both risk and vulnerability to HIV/AIDS.”

For example, Mangladevi feels empowered enough to file a case against her husband who got married to another woman without taking a divorce from her. She has filed for maintenance under the Domestic Violence Act. This is something she would never have had the confidence to do a few years back.

Many like her have got trained by the Karnataka State Legal Services Authority. They proudly carry identity cards proclaiming them as paralegal volunteers. They mediate in cases of domestic violence or any other matter and try to resolve it as a legal right and entitlement amicably. The men are informed about
different laws under which they can be booked. If this does not work, it escalates into a court case.

The District Legal Services Authority then nominates a lawyer who will fight for the victim for free. These measures have decreased violence against the women and other exploitative methods. Says Sivadas: “Unless a measure of social inclusion comes in, nothing can be done for these communities. So, it is important not to criminalize them and get them into the legal process.” Adds Satish Agnihotri, a former bureaucrat: “Without legal literacy, mobilizations remain incomplete. As stakes increase, both need to be raised a step further. It is imperative to have paralegal training.”

Meena from Bengaluru, an outreach worker working with a NGO, was saddled with four children to look after when her husband died of a HIV/AIDS. She tearfully remembers how her daughter was constantly humiliated in school by teachers who kept telling her that her mother was HIV-positive. Ultimately, she had to be pulled out of school. “There are enough laws now, but the main issue is to check whether it works. Women, especially sex workers, need sensitized lawyers as most do not understand HIV/ AIDS issues and are not interested in doing legal aid work for us as the payment is meagre,” she says.

Activist lawyer Vrinda Grover says that there is no monitoring of legal aid services for sex workers. “It should be done to ensure that it works the way it was designed. How many lawyers come well-prepared to defend sex workers in court?” she asks.

Narsamma from Anantapur was a victim of domestic violence. Her first husband deserted her, leaving her with two children. Then, a client of hers professed his love and took her to Bangalore. She had a son with him. After the child was born, he started demanding money from her to fund his drinking habit. Fed up, she returned to Anantapur. It was not easy looking after three children, but counseling from the protection officer in the Women and Child Development Department stopped her from committing suicide. She has now realized the need to be legally literate and is grateful for the help she got from the community.

A para legal volunteer talks of how one sex worker who was a mother of three was forced to live with a powerful toughie. He however did not contribute to running the family. One day, she was forced to get a client home. When he came to know of this, he severely beat her up and inserted a sharp piece of wood into her private parts and also inflicted a head injury. As she was part of a self help group, they rushed her to the Victoria Hospital in Bengaluru but she could not be saved. The women filed a police complaint, got him arrested and followed up with the legal process till he was convicted with a life term for murder.

The Community-based Organizations (CBO) representing sex workers, supported by civil society organizations such as CFAR, have for many years been mobilizing sex workers in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and elsewhere. They also ensure that children of sex workers do not get pulled into the profession.
Sharda (name changed), the daughter of a sex worker, shyly sits in her school principal’s room. She softly speaks of how her mother was rescued by the Delhi police from a brothel and sent back to Gandlapenta in Andhra Pradesh. The young girl is happy being in school as it has triggered new dreams. “I want to become a teacher one day as I can change the lives of so many,” she says.

Sex workers were long denied government benefits under various schemes. To prevent this, the then Anantapur district collector, Lokesh Kumar, decided to set up, what he called, “single window” in 2014 that would ensure that sex workers and transgenders get all their paperwork done to avail of government schemes.
Earlier, they would run from pillar-to-post for aid and often failed to get them even after paying touts. The single window also helped them get voter identity, Aadhar and ration cards, birth certificates and property documents.

It was the Single Window run jointly by CBOs and CFAR which got Sharda into school and secured a pension for both her mother and grandmother. The principal has kept her family background a secret so that she isn’t discriminated against. She is not the only one. Many children of sex workers are now living in residential schools in Andhra Pradesh due to the efforts of social workers.

Sunita Kumari, principal of KGB Vidyalaya, Gandlapenta, where over 200 girls from disadvantaged backgrounds are given free education, says: “Normally parents insist on their daughters marrying before they turn 18. But we do not have a single instance of any of our girls being forced to do so. This is because we counsel the parents regularly on the advantages of education and the career opportunities it opens for their children.”

Playtime at a school in Anantapur Support image
New meaning to life: Playtime at a school in Anantapur

Poor performers in school are singled out for special attention of the teachers. In the last two years, all students appearing for the board exam have passed. Community workers constantly look for students who could be potential dropouts or get into crime.

Take the case of Ishwaraiyya from Anantapur, whose mother, a sex worker, was murdered by his father, who then fled. The Single Window team ensured that he got admission in a free government school with a hostel. He says he has put the past behind him and wants to make his grandmother proud.

Sreenivaslu, assistant project manager of the District Rural Development Agency at Anantapur, told India Legal that the administration had identified 10 areas in the district that were poor and, therefore, prone to trafficking. It had identified as many as 6,000 women who would be attached to self-help groups that would ensure that they get benefits of various government schemes and are not coerced or sexually exploited. The administration would get funds out of the National Livelihood Mission which had earmarked a budget of `11.28 crore, he said.

Government officials were, for the first time, more than ready to help these sex workers. This happened because the district collector had told officials that sex workers must be given priority. They were told that under the Right to Education Act, it was their legal right to get access to education. Sujata, who is being treated for HIV/AIDS, says she got 21 children of sex workers admitted to school as she knows the rights they have to education. “I understand the importance of education as I am illiterate,” she says.

For the first time, sex workers also realized that they were eligible for pensions. While district officials specified what documents were needed, community coordinators helped them garner the necessary documents and filled in the application forms. Ananta-pur has six community-based organizations and over 9,000 sex workers under their umbrella. To ensure that sex workers get immediate attention of government officials when they apply, they are given them a distinctive blue file. Usually, action is taken within two weeks.

Earlier, social workers in Anantapur district found it difficult to get their children admitted into hostels run by the Social Welfare Department or even to get scholarships. But with the blossoming of this new attitude, sex workers and transgenders were told that they could take advantage of eight different schemes. Social workers in the community based organization helped sex workers get income and caste certificates and other documents.

This has brought about a sea change. Ratnamma from Chapiri village in Ananta-pur says that her nine-year-old daughter secured admission in Vth standard. “She will study till the XIIth without a problem,” she says with a smile. Sujata (name changed) whose mother is a devadasi, was under family pressure to get married. She refused to do so after social workers persuaded her to continue studying. She is now in the XIIth standard. The single window process helped her mother get her a scholarship of `2,500 a year and get hostel accommodation to continue studying. “I am grateful that I now have a future,” she says. Many of us take our lives for granted. She does not.

The new confidence in the community shows. Khaja Bee from Dharmavaram says that when the Aadhar centre was set up, she did not go there, fearing stigma. But, when social workers set it up to give out these cards, she confidently approached them and even got a card for her mentally challenged daughter.
Also, under the Integrated Child Protec-tion Scheme, the district also increased financial allocation to ensure that children of sex workers benefited and some were also rehabilitated in government-run homes. As many as 600 children who needed foster care were identified.

The single window culture also got government officials to reach out to sex workers in places convenient for them. In a rectangular room in Ramnagar, where the sun filters in through large windows, a group of brightly dressed women with orange and white flowers in their hair, patiently listens to a group of officers explaining what schemes they were entitled to. And, their legal rights.
Periodically, the officers come there to listen to their grievances and work out solutions on the spot. It is an excellent example of local governance at its best. Here, Venkatarathnam, the district program manager for HIV/AIDS tells a group how he is working on a proposal to secure loans for them under the scheduled tribe category, where they would only have to repay 10 percent of it if they fall into the category of people with HIV/AIDS.

Other officers take notes and promise immediate action.
Geetha, who works as an activist in Bengaluru with the Vijaya Mahila Sangha, says: “We learnt how to access social development schemes and HIV prevention methods and realized that even marginalized women have rights. This has happened as sensitive government officials encouraged us with the single window system, listened to our grievances and ensured we got various benefits. We do not have to knock on government doors anymore as they come to us. The district legal services authority deputed lawyers to help us procure certificates when our husbands deserted us or died.” Asha Ramesh, a gender activist in Bengaluru, says the single window and legal training has “amplified the voices of sex workers on issues and given them access to government benefits they never knew about.”
But then, it took the effort of many to see this empowerment. All eyes are on Ananta-pur as it is a model that can easily be replica-ted all over the country.

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