JAIPUR: Tilawala is a small, nondescript village on the periphery of Jaipur, a popular tourist destination and the state capital of Rajasthan. However, there is something that sets it apart from the other hamlets that dot the countryside – it is home to 10 Rajnat families that survive on income from sex work.

Although it’s their traditional trade – they were initially “entertainers” who enjoyed royal patronage and then post-Independence their women have had to take up prostitution full-time to keep things going – the threats and vulnerabilities that come inherent with the profession have only increased over the years. Particularly grave are the health risks, including Sexually Transmitted Infections and Diseases (STI/STDs) as well as HIV.

Geeta, 55, a Rajnat, is HIV positive and has to go to Jaipur once every month to get her supply of medicines. She contracted the disease from her late husband, who was a truck driver, but considers herself lucky enough to have access to treatment. Until a few years ago, HIV was an overwhelming health issue in quite a few families in Tilawala, as well as in other villages inhabited by Rajnats. Fortunately, better management of the disease and greater awareness among the people has made a big difference.

Shannu, 35, Geeta’s niece, is a retired commercial sex worker; she’s given up the trade ever since she has a steady partner. She is not married – even though she adorns all the customary symbols like a ‘mangalsutra’ and ‘bichiyas’ – and is only too aware that the father of her four children will never formally commit to her.

Conventional nuptials are not all that common in their lot. Before her, her mother was in this line of work as well. And while it’s a given that a Rajnat daughter will follow in her mother’s footsteps Shannu is not sure whether her daughters will do this work. “If there is no job for them later on or if they don’t find someone to settle down with they may end up working in this line only,” she says matter-of-fact.

Despite the imminent uncertainty on whether or not they will step into the trade what Shannu is certain of, but still reluctant to articulate, is that unlike the previous generations that did not know about safety and protection or were not confident of demanding it from their clients, young Rajnat women today will certainly not put themselves at risk. That’s because they have decided that whereas they have no choice but to live with the social stigma that comes with their profession they will certainly not live with life-threatening diseases.

Of course, this heightened sense of awareness about their health rights and how to safeguard themselves has only developed over a period of time and with the concerted efforts of activists of World Vision India, a humanitarian organisation that has been engaging with the Rajnats since the mid-1990s.

“We have been focusing on reaching out to the community with information on health, safety and protection,” shares Alok Peter, Gender and Development Coordinator, World Vision India. However, there is one major hurdle they find themselves up against, time and again.

“The Rajnats are generally a floating population and oftentimes we have to begin afresh with a new group. For instance, if we conduct health awareness activities on a sustained basis with one set of Rajnat women and men we are not sure if we’d find the same set when we go back there for a follow up intervention.

Most of the time, the women go off to Mumbai or other places where they can find better paying work opportunities,” reveals Peter. Each time a group moves, the World Vision India team has to start from scratch with another group which is not an easy task. After all, building relationships and trust takes a long time.

Nonetheless, Rajendar Nehra, a social worker in Tilawala, who is associated with World Vision India, has been witness to a slow, albeit sure, transformation. “There is a greater consciousness around health concerns, especially HIV-AIDS. There were initial hiccups because women’s participation was very low. But these days, both men and women are more alert - regular testing is common and those like Geeta know how crucial it is to take medicine regularly.

A decade ago, when her husband tested positive, awareness levels were low and he didn’t go in for timely medical intervention. He couldn’t be saved but we ensured that Geeta remains okay. Fortunately, our work has ensured that the percentage of new HIV positive patients is drastically reduced. Everyone wants to live a healthy life. Improved literacy and ready access to information has made a marked difference,” he elaborates.

Indeed, when he was just beginning to stir up a conversation on this sensitive subject he had met with a lot of resistance. That hasn’t changed all that much even now but there are sure-shot ways to catch people’s attention. Besides one-on-one meetings with the family members to break the ice and convince the elders to send girls and women for group discussions, they have been routinely staging nukkad nataks (street plays) to spark an interest.

As such the most vulnerable time for Rajnat women is when they are in their teens because they are dependent on their family and have no real voice or control over their future. “Many families are not convinced that sending girls to school is the right decision. What kind of career prospects would they have? And afterwards, where are the eligible grooms to settle down with? So, the likelihood of them getting pushed into sex work always remains very real. Sometimes families strike a deal with potential clients and start taking advance loans from them much before the girl attains puberty,” says Nehra.

He is not wrong in his observations. Sharmila, another former sex worker who, like Shannu, has a partner who supports her financially, is the mother of a college-going daughter. She has made sure the youngster gained an education and doesn’t want her to get into the trade but admits candidly that if there is no one to marry her daughter then in all probability she would be heading to Mumbai to work in a dance bar. Ask her if she has talked to her daughter about safe sex Sharmila is quick to reply, “These things don’t need to be taught nowadays. Everyone knows that unprotected sex is a no-no.”

The fact that Sharmila is so sure her daughter will know how to take care of herself is the outcome of the meetings the duo has been attending where Nehra talks to them about these concerns. In fact, to facilitate a meaningful interaction World Vision India has developed a special kit to educate the community as well as social workers. “It becomes easy to talk on subjects that are normally not freely discussed in society, like reproductive health and risk behaviour, with the help of games and plays. Facilitators pick up questions as per the age and education level of the group members to ensure that everyone understands the information and is on the same page,” points out Nehra.

It’s every Rajnat woman’s dream to lead a happy, secure life. But for most that usually is just a dream. Geeta, Shannu and Sharmila want their daughters to get everything they weren’t able to but there’s always that underlining apprehension that ultimately they too will be doing sex work. “We have ensured that they study so that they can build a different future if the opportunities arise; but in case that doesn’t happen at least we know that they have what it takes to protect themselves from diseases like HIV,” signs off Sharmila.

(Women's Feature Service)