Shame, hope and gratitude in India

The Prime Minister’s Scholarship for Asia took Arts student Elise Dalrymple-Keast into Mumbai and out of her comfort zone.

Elise Dalrymple-Keast

This is both her story and the stories of the extraordinary women she came to know.

“Everything happened really quickly. I had an interview with the Academic Internship Council in Mumbai and talked about how I was passionate about using digital platforms and creativity to tell stories and convey messages. The next thing you know I was leaving in a month.

“They told me about an NGO I could work with called Aastha Parivaar, who work to educate and empower sex workers and people with HIV. Their mission is to help people become independent enough so they can maintain their affairs by themselves.

“The reality is that in India, Mumbai is seen as the place to go if you want to earn money, so a lot of women come from their rural villages to work and send money back to their family. Many of these women are illiterate, and when you have no education or training, sex work is one way you can earn decent money. Usually these women don’t want to become sex workers, but not all of them want to leave it either.

“In my second week there, I headed to one of Aastha Parivaar’s community-based organisations that works with brothel-based sex workers. The office was at the bottom of a seven-storey apartment building and every floor above that, in very small rooms, were 12 built-in cabins, where the sex workers operated seven days a week, from 6pm to about 5am.

Elise (second from left) at the first community-based organisation she visited with Aastha Parivaar.

“The community-based organisation had been going through a lot at that time. There was a woman who had been at the brothel since she was about 20 and when she was 38 she was diagnosed as HIV positive but went into denial.

“The organisation have peer-navigators who are sex workers or former sex workers, are respected in the community and help take women to hospital appointments. They would go to the brothel to take her to the hospital, but the problem is the appointments are only from 9am to noon, which is usually when sex workers sleep. The sex workers also don’t like peer-navigators going into their rooms because people, including the brothel owners, might catch on that they have HIV.

“This particular woman had a son who she’d been sending money home to, but she’d never seen a penny of her earnings. The peer-navigators tried to help her with her finances, so she could start keeping her own money, and help her to leave sex work, but she still cut all contact with them. She ended up getting so sick that she couldn’t walk anymore. When the brothel owner found out, he sent her back to her village. Less than a week later, her son dropped her back at a street near the brothel and she had to crawl back to the brothel door.

“None of the girls wanted to share a room with her because they believed that they would catch HIV, and the brothel owner wouldn’t let her in.

“So Aastha Parivaar stepped in along with the community-based organisation and took her to a treatment facility.

“The organisation then took her to hospital, used their own funds and crowdfunded from other sex workers to pay for her hospital fees, food and clothing. A week before I arrived in India she died. They really had done everything they could and it had taken 90,000 rupees of the organisation’s money to provide that kind of care.

“I also visited a community-based organisation that looks after bar-based sex workers. They have higher paying clientele so they often have a lot better quality of life. Because of that, they tend to want to stay in their jobs. However, a lot of them have false misconceptions. They think that because they’re seeing higher paying clients there isn’t any risk of getting HIV. So often these women are diagnosed HIV positive but are confused as to how it’s happened and they go into denial.

“The organisation has really cool resources. Because a lot of the women are illiterate or speak other languages, they have picture-based education showing the different choices that can lead to getting HIV, how to avoid it, how to live a healthy life and more.

“The innovative ways they’re teaching these women so that they can understand – making education fun and not condemning and judgmental – is amazing.

Image-based resources to help educate sex workers.

“One bar-based sex worker I spoke to said she used to be so ashamed that she couldn’t look people in the eye. Through word-of-mouth, she heard about Aastha Parivaar and became a peer-navigator, then a peer-educator, and now she’s a community-based outreach worker and gets paid. She’s been able to leave sex work and it’s changed her life. She’s so confident, can look people in the eye and can speak to anyone.

“There are a lot of strong, inspirational women out there who are getting educated and using their education. Knowing how hard they’ve had to fight to get there – it’s just incredible.

“It makes me so appreciative of the opportunities I’ve had. It’s made me even more driven because even waking up here in New Zealand is an opportunity. I always knew that I was very blessed but this trip really drove it home.

“The last day I was walking around by myself and I slowed down to really take it all in. The women in the slum area where I walked every day, were waving at me from their houses and calling out ‘hello didi’ which means ‘hello sister’. It’s a really nice greeting and I was so emotional and really wasn’t ready to leave. I knew it was going to take retrospective thinking to take it all in.

“Six weeks isn’t a lot of time to achieve anything drastic. But I figured if I could grow some awareness on social media, on their website, help grow some understanding of what HIV is, of what sex work is, and share the work that Aastha Parivaar does, then I feel like I’ve done something good.

“The Prime Minister’s Scholarship for Asia is such an amazing opportunity. We were just so privileged with the support we had over there and got to do amazing cultural trips as well. It was a fantastic opportunity to do something I never would have done on my own, and to get pushed beyond my comfort zone. I really needed it and I’d thoroughly recommend it!”

Elise completed a Bachelor of Arts double majoring in Communication and Politics and International Relations. She went to Mumbai on a Prime Minister’s Scholarship for Asia.