(New York) — On November 13, Human Rights Watch will give its highest recognition to Meena Saraswathi Seshu, an activist whose courageous work in southern India has helped women in prostitution and others at high risk of HIV/AIDS to combat abuse and discrimination and become important allies in the fight against a growing AIDS epidemic.
The Indian government says there are 4 million persons with HIV/AIDS in India, a figure that most experts think is grossly understated. Since the national AIDS program refuses to provide anti-retroviral treatment, prevention is the only hope for the millions at risk of infection. “Meena Seshu has worked tirelessly to prevent and contain one of the worst epidemics in the world,” said Joanne Csete, director of the HIV/AIDS and Human Rights Program at Human Rights Watch. “I have seen the impact of Meena's brave work firsthand. If there were more activists with her courage and sense of solidarity with the most marginalized, the AIDS crisis in India wouldn't stand a chance.”
AIDS in India, which has already killed millions, is fueled in part by official harassment and social stigmatization of women in prostitution, men who have sex with men, injecting drug users, prisoners and others at high risk of infection. These groups suffered severe discrimination and abuse even before the advent of the AIDS epidemic, and are further marginalized by it with lethal results. In recent years, both these persons and outreach workers who have tried to bring HIV/AIDS information and condoms to them have often met with violent abuse and harassment by the police, including unlawful arrest, sexual and physical abuse, and extortion.
Meena Seshu is founder and general secretary of SANGRAM, an organization based in Sangli, Maharashtra State, that has helped women in prostitution become AIDS educators among themselves and in the wider community. SANGRAM has empowered women in prostitution to demand safe sex of their clients and has built on that transforming work to organize HIV/AIDS education and condom distribution for the general population. In the districts in which it works, SANGRAM’s programs ensure the distribution of up to 350,000 condoms per month. SANGRAM also supports peer education on HIV/AIDS for men who have sex with men.
In early 2002, women sex workers in a collective supported by SANGRAM in Nippani (Karnataka State) were systematically and violently harassed by local thugs supported by Shiv Sena, a Hindu political party. The collective’s life-saving work in the town was disrupted as members were forced to flee their homes. When the women attempted to file a complaint with the police, they were told they were not “normal citizens” with the right to file complaints. Meena Seshu was attacked by local leaders in the press and accused of using HIV/AIDS education as a front for running brothels. Undaunted, Seshu mobilized support from around the country and forced an investigation of the acts of violence against the women in prostitution, managing to reestablish much of the work of the collective. SANGRAM continues its work as a living example of fighting AIDS by defending the rights of those whose risk of infection is heightened by marginalization and discrimination.
“If the Indian government continues on this course of abuse of HIV/AIDS workers, it is literally a recipe for more death in India,” said Csete. “We hope that recognizing Meena Seshu will signal to India that the government must embrace and support such work to prevent the AIDS crisis from escalating further.”
Background on Meena Seshu:
Meena Seshu is one of India’s most compelling and creative human rights and AIDS activists. She speaks consistently about the HIV/AIDS crisis as a human rights issue. Ms. Seshu is the general secretary of SANGRAM, an organization that works to stem the epidemic in Maharashtra state, which has one of the highest infection rates in India. SANGRAM disseminates basic information about HIV and distributes 350,000 condoms per month, which translates into significant HIV prevention. One of the group’s most successful projects is to build the capacity of sex workers to organize in collectives, negotiate condom use with their clients, and assert and defend their rights. Human Rights Watch worked with SANGRAM earlier this year and documented how the Indian police and local thugs obstructed SANGRAM’s work through harassment and abuse of its outreach workers. In so doing, the police prevented the dissemination of essential information and services and perpetuated the social stigmatization of vulnerable populations. Ms. Seshu, who has endured personal attacks by local authorities, has not let that stop her from working on behalf of some of India’s most marginalized people.