Tough Nuts to Crack: Police Advocacy by Sex Workers
As in other parts of the country, sex workers are found across Andhra Pradesh, and effective HIV programming requires community mobilisation that is responsive to their lives on the ground. Through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Avahan programme implemented by Alliance India in Andhra Pradesh from 2003-2014, HIV prevention interventions drew diverse sex worker groups into a single protection programme. Among them were a group of roughly 600 female sex workers who were identified in sites around the Hayatnagar area of Hyderabad.
Most of these women have travelled from villages in neighbouring districts to seek a livelihood through sex work. Street-based sex workers constitute a distinct group among them. They solicit clients at bus stops, theatres, parks, and major city junctions. This group is much more vulnerable not only to police harassment and unlawful arrests but also to physical and sexual violence. The women working in Hayatnagar experienced many incidents of violence and harassment, including by the police.
Soni, an outreach worker from the sex worker community says, “Some cops are tough nuts to crack. When we run into a tough cop, we concentrate our efforts on informing and reforming the police officer.” Project coordinator Srinivas continues, “It is just one police officer who has made life difficult for the women in this area.” According to the sex workers in Hayatnagar, a female police officer has been responsible for the harassment of sex workers, as well as peer educators and outreach workers. The woman sub-inspector in the area does not understand the purpose of the interventions and has been rounding up women, detaining them for long hours, sometimes even overnight at the police station.
“She doesn’t listen to us, takes away our cellphones, and refuses to look at our identity cards. We just sit there and wait for her to get into the mood to let us out,” confirms one of the sex workers.
Team members were surprised at the behaviour of this officer, but she was new to the area did not understand HIV prevention. Fortunately, they had experience with police advocacy to draw upon. “We have talked to many police officers who understand our issues and problems. The work we are doing is basically to protect our colleagues. Now we need to find another strategy to reach out to this new officer,” Soni says. “We’ll strive to do HIV prevention work, as well as to strengthen our community, through peaceful means.”
This blog post is adapted from Alliance India’s publication, Touching Communities, Transforming Lives: Stories of sex workers and MSM in Alliance India’s Avahan programme