We celebrated our 30th anniversary 2015! In honor of this milestone, we profiled 30 remarkable leaders who have partnered with AJWS to build a better world. These are but a few of the thousands who have raised their voices worldwide with our support, changing the lives of millions for the better.
Advocating for the dignity and human rights of sex workers
In the early 1980s, Meena Seshu was a young feminist activist seeking to stop violence against women in India’s Maharashtra State. Her focus changed over the next decade, as AIDS began to take a deadly toll in the poor areas where she worked. Determined to fight the disease, she began working with a community of women who suffered from alarming rates of both violence and HIV: sex workers.
Meena soon learned about the litany of abuse that India’s sex workers experienced: rape by clients, violent raids of their homes by the police, assault by citizen vigilantes who disapproved of the practice. Clients refused to use condoms, and local health centers refused to care for them when they were pregnant or HIV-positive. To Meena’s surprise, most of these women told her they had chosen their work willingly. They wanted to reform, rather than leave, the sex trade. This insight sparked a radical shift in Meena’s thinking—as well as her career.
“The atrocities I witnessed,” she said, “led me and others to found a collective of sex workers and women’s rights leaders dedicated to changing this reality.” Her organization, SANGRAM, now empowers thousands of sex workers to advocate for their right to earn a living without the constant threat of violence and disease. The women distribute condoms, teach their peers self-defense, protest police brutality, and advocate for new laws that would create a safer work environment overall.
According to UNAIDS, Meena and SANGRAM have accomplished a marked improvement in the availability of HIV treatment, care and support for sex workers in India, helping slow the virus’s spread.
Meena wants the world to see sex workers as people with the same humanity, dignity and right to safety as anyone else. “Sex workers choose the best possible option available to them,” she said. But “because sex work is so deeply stigmatized, people in power don’t want to listen to them. With AJWS’s support, we at SANGRAM are organizing them to get a voice.”