This is a pilot project to facilitate development of ‘agency’ among women in sex work in South India to protect themselves against violence and exploitation at work and in the home, and to experience greater respect, safety, and security. The “targeted interventions” (TIs), model for HIV prevention acknowledged the strong association between women’s vulnerability to HIV infection and social exclusion and lack of agency among women in sex work. Interventions emphasized the empowerment of women in sex work through building personal and professional skills as well as through helping to create an environment that would treat them with respect and enable them to live with dignity. In 2006, Indian national policy and practice began to target women in sex work for mass HIV testing. Interventions to help women to understand their vulnerabilities to infection as well as to build self worth and self esteem were neglected. Overnight, “choice” and “agency” became problematic concepts. Women began to be herded like cattle into testing centres, often tricked into thinking that they were being offered a general health check up, or enticed with “gifts”. The space given to them as thinking individuals and the dignity they had gained over the last decade was replaced by re-characterizing them as part of the problem.
Disturbed by the slide towards disempowerment of women and conscious that in the past decade, Following the capabilities approach of Amartya Sen the project helped women in sex work in 13 districts of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu to identify and prioritize six key domains and related capabilities which would help them address abuse and exploitation in their lives, and allow them to live with greater respect and dignity.
In this project, agency is defined as the ability of a person to pursue ideals, goods, or services that she values (Sen 1990), and recognize it as an essential element to make one’s own choices and to act on them. The project also recognizes that violence, abuse, and exploitation of women can be physical, sexual, psychological, and economic (Misra 2013). The project is implemented by Samraksha in Gadag, Haveri and Uttar Kannada, by Sangama in Bangalore Urban, Bangalore rural and Ramnagar, by WINS in Chittoor and Prakasam and by SIAAP in Vellore, Madurai, Theni, Tirunelveli and Kanyakumari districts.