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Jaime Canizares, 2L, Legal Intern with Saheli Sex Workers Collective in India

Thursday, June 28, 2012   (0 Comments)
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By Jaime Canizares

I am a 43-year old law student who will be starting my second year at the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law this fall. As a former international human rights and humanitarian assistance field worker with the United Nations, I monitored human rights violations in Haiti and Angola, conducted trainings for law enforcement officials, and set up networks to assist victims of human rights violations. I also worked with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) managing a camp for Sudanese refugees in Chad. In Argentina, I was the Bolivia desk in officer where I oversaw the protection of refugees. When I decided to enter law school, I was particularly drawn to the David A. Clarke School of Law for its commitment to social justice and the clinical experience the school offers to students. I plan to return to the UN after graduation.

Jaime Canizares

While in law school, I have wanted to combine my experience in international field work with my legal training.When I heard about Saheli HIV/AIDS Karyakarta Sang (Saheli) I knew I wanted to work for this organization during the summer. Saheli is the only collective of sex workers in Pune, India. Its team of trained social workers provides all kinds of support services to about 3,500 sex workers in the city’s red light area. With the help of eight sex workers who are trained peer educators, the organization provides all kinds of assistance to their clients on issues ranging from use of condoms to how to deal with harassment and police brutality. One of the organization’s main goals is to stop the rate of HIV/AIDS infection and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases among the sex workers. In the process, they are also helping the larger community by helping stop the spread of these diseases through the messages they pass on to the prostitutes. Saheli is also working to prevent the children of these prostitutes, especially their young daughters, from entering the sex trade.

As a legal intern, I am working on issues related to police harassment and brutality against prostitutes. I am working on two areas of intervention to stop the abuse committed against prostitutes. I am developing and preparing a legal training manual which will be used to train a group of peer educators (who are sex workers) and prostitutes about various aspects of the law regulating this trade.I am conducting legal research on the various statutes regulating sex trade in India, as well as the various penal laws in order to inform the sex workers about their legal rights and obligations. Through this training we also aim to provide the sex workers with the appropriate tools to deal with police brutality, extortion, and harassment committed against them. I am also procuring funding for this activity by developing funding proposals and seeking funding from various sources. Lastly, I am working with other law students on a possible litigation case involving the forced removal of a group of four prostitutes from a brothel.

While at Saheli, I had the chance to experience life inside a brothel. The following account took place on one of the visits my colleagues and I made to the red light area. It is getting close to midday when we arrive at the first brothel.At the entrance, a group of young and old sex workers is sitting on the floor carrying on a conversation. The women greet my two female colleagueswho are social workers atSaheli. My colleagues introduce me to the sex workers in turn. Because I am a foreigner, I am closely scrutinized. However, I pass the test since I am with my colleagues. We proceed up the steps to a waiting room; this is the space where the sex workers entertain their customers. A second group of sex workers is sitting on the benches; this time all of them are young. Some of them look barely of legal age to my western eyes. The waiting room is connected to an aisle with small rooms the women use to sell their bodies. There are usually 10 to 12 women, of all ages, who live in very cramped quarters. They cook, live, and conduct their business within these walls. Depending on the size of the brothel, the number could be bigger.

Pune has the third largest concentration of prostitutes in India after Delhi and Mumbai. Although it is difficult to accurately pinpoint the exact number of prostitutes in Pune, due to the clandestine nature of the trade, some estimates place the figure as high as 40,000 women (Thappa DM, Singh N, Kaimal S. Prostitution in India and its role in the spread of HIV infection. Indian J Sex Transm Dis 2007; 28:69-75.).There are many reasons to explain why women in India are driven into the flesh trade. Some of them were sold into prostitution by their own families including their husbands; others were trafficked, such as the Nepali and Bangladeshi women; and others chose to go into this due to poverty.Whatever their reason for entering this profession, the women at Saheli are committed to helping them.

When I visited the brothel, I came acrossa young sex worker whose mother is also a prostitute. Besides her alcohol addiction, she is infected with the HIV/AIDS virus. It was midday and she was passed-out drunk on the floor. I noticed her and then inquired about her situation. One of the social workers explained to me that this particular woman appears to have some psychological problems. They tried convincing her to seek treatment for HIV and her addiction, but she refuses. The social workers seem to think she is on a suicidal course. I don’t doubt it a bit, since she grew up in this kind of environment. On another brothel, we came across a woman whose customer had slashed her throat. My colleagues asked questions about the incident and after a brief discussion they advised her to go and seek medical help and to report the matter to the police station. Among other things, my colleagues also have to deal with issues of police brutality and intimidation directed at the sex workers. Since most of the women are illiterate, the only means of passing information is by talking to them through these field visits. The social workers told me that they cover many issues including answering questions, sometimes admonishing them to get check-ups, and even exerting a bit on peer pressure to stop certain behaviors. Following this visit, I devised an intake and follow-up form for the social workers to use in order to account for the various clients they assist during the week. This is another way my legal training has been put to use for the betterment of the organization.

So far I have learned a lot about sex workers in India as well as human rights issues that affect women around the world. As a future international human rights/refugee lawyer, this summer experience at Saheli has proven to be invaluable to my career.



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