Q&A: India’s sex workers battle stigma

Dr Giri sexworker supporter
Doctor Agnimita Giri Sarkar became aware of social stigma while raising awareness of cancer and HIV among sex workers in Kolkata. Copyright: Sanjeet Bagcchi

Speed read

  • Sex workers in Kolkata lacking health services amid social stigma
  • Indian doctor uses popular TV show to combat prejudices
  • Virtual platforms helped her connect with sex workers during COVID-19

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[NEW DELHI] When Indian doctor Agnimita Giri Sarkar started raising awareness of cancer and HIV among sex workers on the streets of Kolkata, she quickly became aware of the social stigma they face.

Nearly 2.1 million people in India live with HIV and 1.6 per cent of female sex workers have the infection, according to 2017 figures from the UK-based HIV/AIDS charity Avert.

But stigma surrounding the disease, coupled with the stigma associated with sex work itself, means that many fail to receive the health advice and care they need, says Sarkar, a paediatrician at the Institute of Child Health in Kolkata.

She spoke to SciDev.Net about her grassroots work spreading scientific information about sexually transmitted infections, and how she connected with sex workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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What prompted you to work among sex workers in Kolkata to help them tackle HIV/AIDS and other diseases?

As the founder of the organisation Disha for Cancer (it deals with female cancer awareness, survivorship and advocacy), my primary focus was cancer awareness. In 2018, I met the late Dr Smarajit Jana, a public health scientist who founded, in 1995, Durbar in West Bengal, which is a collective of sex workers and aims to protect their rights and dignity.

While doing cancer awareness campaigns amongst sex workers in Kolkata, I was drawn into their problems associated with HIV/AIDS. My interest in HIV among the female sex workers of Kolkata grew under the mentorship of…Jana and I found myself passionate about this social issue beyond my primary area of interest, paediatric medicine.

What exactly does your work among sex workers in Kolkata involve?

I take part in initiatives to make people understand that sex workers are not isolated individuals; they belong to the same society as we do. Along with conducting regular awareness campaigns, I with my co-workers and volunteers, organise “road walks” with sex workers to increase knowledge about them in the general population.

I moderate talk shows on a renowned television channel on HIV/AIDS and bring sex workers as guests there. Their appearance in television shows and interactions on stigma relating to HIV/AIDS help to break the social barriers. Also, to mitigate social ostracism, I try to invite sex workers to perform dance [and] drama in medical programmes, for instance, at a breast cancer survivors’ conference. I actively take part in regular health clinics for sex workers…to make them aware, updated, and also solve their problems about barrier contraception, COVID-19 precautions and cancers.

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What are the challenges that you face while doing these activities at the ground level?  

The initial problem I faced was to establish trust. It took me months and repeated visits to break the ice and gain the trust of sex workers. Then only, I could discuss with them the sensitive issues about HIV-related stigma, their personal protection measures, and other diseases like cancers. During the COVID-19 pandemic, I was able to educate them about the usage of virtual platforms, and thus I could interact with them even during the strictest lockdowns. However, it was a challenging task. Through virtual platforms, I could reach thousands of sex workers across the city and the district towns of West Bengal state.

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Global desk.