Watch Meena Seshu, co-founder of our Indian partner SANGRAM, deliver the Jonathan Mann Memorial Lecture at the International AIDS Conference (IAC) plenary yesterday in Vienna (her speech starts around the one hour mark in the taped webcast embedded above).
In her speech, Meena details SANGRAM’s path to success in working collaboratively with sex workers to claim their rights, including missteps based on good intentions. It’s interesting to hear these stories and see the way Meena’s thinking has evolved, and most importantly, how she has listened to the people she’s trying to help and let them take charge of their own projects, their health, and the destinies of their communities.
Meena, who came from an upper-class background and worked for years as a social worker, was admittedly new to working with sex workers. She describes going to a meeting of sex workers in which she handed them a plan for dealing with clients and convincing them to use condoms. The sex workers in the meeting listened patiently, but couldn’t stop laughing. They made her understand how “ridiculous” the plan was, while asking if she had any experience dealing with men. Then they told her, “you get us good quality condoms, we’ll do the rest!”
She also describes her role in a collaborative project with a local hospital in which ten doctors set up a clinic just outside the brothel area. Sex workers not only didn’t come to the clinic, but actually fled from their houses and the city to avoid getting treatment. This made the doctors furious, but taught Meena that you can’t tell people that they must get tested and treated, and that it must be a collaborative process based on free, informed consent: At-risk populations have a right to say both yes and no to medical treatments.