When she was a child, Alka Mallapa Gujnal would often wonder why women wearing loud make-up and shimmering saris would walk up and down the street where she lived. It was only a few years later, when a man approached her asking her ‘rate’ that she understood.

Her initial shock on learning that their poor financial condition forced them to stay in a ‘red light area’, turned into empathy for the sex workers when she interacted with them and heard their stories. One day, a young sex worker she had befriended was thrown out on the street because she had Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) infection. But before Gujnal could do anything, the sex worker died. Seeing her lie on the street, alone and unwanted, with no one willing to perform her last rites, had a profound effect on Gujnal. This incident was to change her life.

“I couldn’t accept that women could be stripped of their dignity just because of an illness. It was inhuman. I decided then that I would work to reduce the stigma and discrimination against sex workers,” recounts Gujnal.

Gujnal, then in Class 12, kept her word. Once she completed her education, not only did she start confidence-building sessions at her house in Pune for children of the sex workers in the area but she also took responsibility for two of them. The mother of both these children was a sex worker who died from HIV-related illnesses. “I promised their mother that I would look after her young children. So, I am trying to give them the life their mother had wanted,” says Gujnal.

She also took on the responsibility of performing the final rites of all sex workers abandoned by their families. “I took this decision after I saw that even the family members of the sex workers refused to come forward. They were declared as lawaris (a person with no kin) by the police. It was very sad. I try to give them the dignity they deserve by following the basic customs and performing their last rites,” she says.

Although this hasn’t been easy, Gujnal has managed to persuade local police and municipal authorities to support her. Being a group mobiliser for the Pune Municipal Corporation for the last 20 years helped her to bring about an attitudinal change slowly. “My work as a mobiliser for marginalised groups gave me the skills to organise savings group among the sex workers. Once they saw I was trying to improve their lives, they began to trust me. They knew I wouldn’t deceive them or try to trick them out of their money,” says Gujnal. This trust has helped her reach out to over 2,000 brothel, street and home-based commercial sex workers. Having witnessed the stigma and discrimination they faced because of their profession and the ostracism against them, especially if they were living with HIV/AIDS, Gujnal has worked to raise awareness of this issue.

Medical facilities too

“It was difficult to talk about this in the community. They are reluctant to visit doctors because they fear discrimination. They were not aware that there are special arrangements in hospitals for people living with HIV where voluntary testing can also be done. Once they realised they could live a normal life if they received medical help, they decided to seek treatment,” explains Gujnal.

So far, over 350 women have accessed medical care and services, and 20 women living with HIV have been linked to free Antiretroviral Therapy (ART). Gujnal has made sure that they don’t drop out by forming a network comprising over 200 commercial sex workers. The network, which meets regularly to discuss their concerns and problems, also follows up on the women to ensure treatment adherence. If required, Gujnal facilitates counselling sessions and provides vocational training and livelihood support to women who wish to leave the profession by linking them to government schemes for women’s empowerment.

It was while interacting with the sex workers that Gujnal realised they wanted their children to have a better life than their own and be protected from sexual predators. So, Gujnal teamed up with local community organisations to train children on their rights and to teach them the difference between a ‘good and bad touch’. At first the children met in her house but as the numbers grew, Gujnal shifted the sessions to a nearby building provided by a voluntary organisation. Awareness training through games and other activities is held in the evening for them.

Education for their children

One of her big achievements has been to enrol 46 children of sex workers in government schools. However, the bigger challenge was to sensitise teachers and members of the school management committee comprising parents to help these children stay in school. “Although it took some time, the children are now happy to go to school. This has inspired those children of sex workers who had dropped out earlier. So, remedial classes are being organised for them,” informs Gujnal.

It was this transformational work that won her the 2019 Plan India impact award last month. “How many people can work so selflessly, especially under such difficult circumstances? They need to be recognised and honoured. This is why she was chosen for her work as a community volunteer among 191 nominations for this year’s Plan India’s annual impact award that honours last-mile champions. This is our way of showing our gratitude for reaching out to the unreached. She is a role model for many of us,” says Anuja Bansal, Executive Director, Plan India.

While awards have motivated her, what keeps Gujnal going is the love she has received from the community she works with. “I faced opposition from my family when I started working with sex workers. Everyone was afraid of what relatives would say and that nobody would marry me. This did not deter me. I am single and want to remain this way so that I can continue to help more women. I am happy my family realised this and supports me. Many people wonder why I continue to work with them. I do it because it gives me happiness. My work seems worthwhile when I see a smile on their faces,” says Gujnal.

The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi