American Jewish World Service (AJWS) recently hosted Meena Seshu for a visit to our headquarters in New York City. Meena is the secretary general of SANGRAM, an AJWS grantee in India that educates and empowers sex workers to overcome their most challenging health and human rights issues.
While she was here, Meena stopped by The Leonard Lopate Show on WNYC, New York City’s public radio station. She talked with guest host and actress Martha Plimpton, star of the Fox television show “Raising Hope,” about SANGRAM’s efforts to help Indian sex workers curb violence and keep themselves safe from HIV.
As Meena explained on the air, SANGRAM works with about 5,000 sex workers in Sangli, a rural area south of Mumbai. Meena founded the nonprofit in 1992 with a mission to educate sex workers about HIV, but she soon learned that sex workers faced many hurdles to protecting themselves. Some of the biggest challenges were discrimination and violence against sex workers, many of whom come from low-income backgrounds and the lower levels of India’s traditional caste system.
“Because much of sex work is so deeply stigmatized, people in power don’t want to listen to them,” Meena said. “We have tried to organize them to get a voice.”
In 2006, SANGRAM received international attention when the organization refused to support the U.S. government policy known as the “anti-prostitution pledge,” which required organizations receiving U.S. federal funding to have a policy opposing prostitution. In June, the Supreme Court ruled that the policy was unconstitutional because it violated free speech rights. You can learn more about that ruling here.
SANGRAM has long argued that no organization can assist sex workers without truly listening to them. Meena said sex workers in Sangli have told her that they want more of the respect and rights given to other trades, in part because that would mean much less police harassment and abuse.
“Sex workers choose the best possible option available to them,” Meena explained. “You cannot work for the rights of people or hope to end this [HIV] epidemic without supporting sex workers. It’s just not possible.”
Elizabeth Daube is the communications officer for American Jewish World Service.