Sampada Gramin Mahila Sanstha


People should believe that they can change things. It is not about a few activists fighting for other people’s rights. Anybody who has imbibed this understanding should be able to go and fight for their rights.

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Conditions for the free exercise of sexual choice be created so that we are free to determine the conditions of our sexual relationships, be it for procreation, pleasure or financial rewards.

Working with men who have sex with men

It is a sleepy Sunday afternoon but the floorboards of the VAMP office are clattering under hurried excited feet. Pants and shirts lie discarded on the floor, saris are put on with a practiced ease, hands that are too big are coaxed through bangles that are too small, handkerchiefs are balled up and shoved into already strained sari blouses. Soon the room is filled with seductive hip shaking and screechy Bollywood hits about desire and bodylonging. The party has begun.

In 2000, a small group of men approached SANGRAM to start a programme with Males who have Sex with Males (MSM). A study by Blackstone Market Facts for Family Health International had shown that MSM behaviour in Sangli district is significantly high. Another study by ORG revealed that most men having sex with men are married and do not practice safe sex. This spurred SANGRAM into working with a small group of 20 men having sex with men.

Muskan means ‘smile’, the name given to the MSM support group that started in 2000. The intervention started out by mapping popular pick up points for men having sex with men – the bus stand, the dargah or mosque, by the river, the stadium. Four outreach workers, all of whom identified as MSM, would meet other men buying and selling sex in popular cruising spots and give them information about HIV/AIDS and STD prevention, and demonstrate condom use. They would begin conversations about relationships, sexual practice, and how to be safe and responsible during sex.

In its first phase, Muskan reached out to more than 600 men, treating at least 40 STD cases and identifying 3 HIV-positive persons in one year. During this time, Muskan functioned almost as a separate project, partly due to the support group members’ own struggles with gender and sexual identities. Many felt that they did not really fit in anywhere because they encompassed a bit of every group – man/woman/sex worker. “At first I didn’t go to any meetings because I didn’t know what was happening and I was scared of being told I was abnormal, or of people rejecting me,” says Sudhir, who now works on the truckers’ project in SANGRAM.

The group faced other problems in getting started. There was routine harassment by the police, specially during condom demonstrations. The violence that effeminate men face is as common as the persecution of women. The small MSM community was scared of being exposed and suspicious of Muskan. Support group members began by befriending other kothis at a personal level before bringing them into meetings.

After an unforeseen hiatus of two years, the Muskan project re-started in 2004 with new perspectives and intervention strategies. In order to integrate men who have sex with men more firmly into the ethos and work of SANGRAM and VAMP, the men now also participate in the truckers’ project as outreach workers. Male to male sex between truckers and young boys who function as truck cleaners is also common. So the Muskan group talks about responsible sexuality within this context.

Over the years, Muskan has also become a weekly space for men having sex with men to meet. These hours on a Sunday evening are a safe haven for MSM who have no other space to express their femininity. It’s a time to dress up, dance, play, talk about problems, and share gossip. New members are encouraged to play an informational game on HIV/AIDS/STD prevention modelled on Snakes and Ladders. Some of the regulars find it just as interesting too. They share stories about the pressure to be normal, about the latest lover, or just the mundane aspects of work and family life.

“Earlier there was no sense of organization with MSM in this area,” says Raosaheb. “Now we are forming a group. This will allow us to reach out to more men and their male partners.” And they are committed to keeping this group going. “It feels good reaching out to people who are like me,” says Sudhir. “We have to help each other to be safe. We have to become stronger as a group, just like VAMP.”

Kothi is a self-identifying label for those males who may feminize their behaviours (either to attract “manly” male sexual partners and usually in specific situations and contexts), and who state that they prefer to be sexually penetrated anally and/or orally.

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