My NGO received a small grant from the Elton John Aids Foundation via VSOB last year to set up and run an HIV/AIDS Helpline, currently the only one in operation in Bangladesh. An exposure visit to West Bengal formed part of the obligation to accepting that grant. It should have taken place last year but fell through, due to the Mumbai terror attack, which triggered the closure of the Indian border on the eve of departure. So it fell to me to reorganise this visit to ensure we fulfilled the conditions of the grant. The key objective was to meet with similar Indian HIV/AIDS NGO’s based in Calcutta, also running a Helpline, with the purpose of learning ways of consolidating and expanding, but also efficient operation and service delivery.
The first thing that struck me was how responsive the Indian organisations were, how keen to meet with us. They confirmed, filling up our four day timetable in no time. In fact we could have easily stayed a further four days as there were many more who we simply couldn’t accommodate and incorporate into our schedule. So with our visit planned and our objectives set, it only remained for us to travel to Zia International airport to catch our flight to Calcutta,
Such heavy precautions in place to manage the swine flu epidemic surprised me on arrival at Chandra Bose Airport. Not simply form filling, asking all the obvious questions, ticking all the usual boxes, but men in white coats and face masks taking the passenger’s pulse. Scary! We muddled our way through the white tape and hired one of the bright yellow taxi cabs, gaining our first glimpse of India as we drove through the city streets in search of our hotel in the heart of Calcutta.
We launched our programme early the following morning, spending an entire day with the Calcutta Samaritans, at their Aurnoday Midway Home, which operates a Pavement Club, a Primary Health Care unit, an HIV/AIDS programme, a Home for children at risk and support for the city’s Rickshaw Pullers. With such a well established NGO we planned to spend the morning meeting with their HIV/AIDS Programme Manager and Helpline Counsellors, the afternoon visiting their Home for orphan slum children and their HIV/AIDS Drop in Centre, and the evening on a field trip to spend time with some of the city’s sex worker population.
After a full day in consultation with an assortment of fascinating and highly capable individuals, we made our way as darkness fell, to the park opposite the Victoria Memorial, a beautiful, white monumental building. Victoria Park itself covers a vast wide open space, where groups of young people, families, food hawkers all mingle…and collide with the sex industry, who’s workers operate spread out all over this busy area. The Samaritans have allocated a central focal point where one appointed sex worker spends a minimum of two hours a day on behalf of the programme. Handing out free condoms, both male and female, she offers advice to all who enquire, related to sexual health in general and HIV/AIDS in particular.
We sat with her, cross legged on the grass, and within moments I could see them starting to trail over, converging on us from every direction, curious to see who had come to visit their ‘patch’. They greeted us on arrival, sitting or squatting until we had formed a large circle. Some were shy, but others came up to greet me personally. One, with startlingly good English, held me in fascinating conversation for many minutes, talking of her difficult and unhappy home life, dominated by her mother-in-law. Unusually tall, she stood erect and proud, her hair loose and flowing, and despite several missing teeth and advancing age, she still struck me as a fairly magnificent woman.
From time to time one of them would simply drift away, returning to sit back with us again ten minutes or so later. I never could work out how they knew their clients were waiting, but somehow they did. Overall I found the exchange fascinating, and came away really appreciating how flying, or mobile sex-workers operate, their key areas of risk, and the many challenges present in their daily lives.
The following afternoon our second field trip was scheduled, an appointment to visit a short term shelter home in North Calcutta to meet ‘The Dancing Boys’, adolescent and young gender variant males, with a feminine demeanor. A high risk underground group, this vulnerable population, some identified as young as 12 years, can be hard to reach, and regularly fall into prostitution from an early age.
As a marginalised group they are typically victims of social stigma and gross human rights violations, and as a result face serious barriers to joining mainstream occupations. As an alternative they join the troop as a ‘Luanda Dancer’, and migrate to Bihar and Uttar Pradesh to dance in the marriage rituals. Their livelihood as Hijra or folk entertainers put them at grave risk of sexual harassment, abuse, assault and trafficking, which on occasions has resulted in death.
The lauder naach is an integral part of the marriage ceremony, and an age-old popular tradition in northern India, where a wedding is an elaborate affair comprising of music, food, drink and dancing, but here effeminate boys dance in the marriage procession and ceremonies dressed in women’s clothing. This custom evolved from poor families, who could not afford the more expensive women dancers, but gradually the practice became not only popular but an intrinsic part of the ceremony itself.
Usually from lower middle class poor families, the dancers, typically between 15 to 25 years old, travel from West Bengal, Nepal, and Bangladesh for the peak marriage season, April to June in the summer and December to February in the winter. The groom’s family normally hires the dancers, who, along with the baraat (groom’s entourage) journey to the bride’s family home, where the laggan (marriage) ceremony takes place, usually commencing late in the evening. Once the dancing begins, it continues, in most cases non-stop through to dawn and as the celebration progresses, their vulnerability to both physical and sexual assault increases.
The attraction of Launda dancing is mainly the income, a performer could earn Rs.6000/ to Rs.12OOO on a three month contract, usually with the addition of free food and lodging, but the dancers can also be paid in cash at the end of each session. However they often get less than their contractual agreement, and sometimes nothing at all. But it is the freedom to express their womanly instincts away from the jibes of relatives and neighbors that provides the main source of satisfaction. So in spite of the risks involved, very few actually want to quit this seasonal profession, and they have a serious lack of alternative options.
This relatively small network impressed me greatly. They were so active, protecting their rights and attempting to gain control over their lives. I admired their photographs and short mobile-phone video clips that they openly shared with me. As I watched the dancing ceremony, peering closely at them on the tiny screens, it was clear they were immensely proud.
Throughout this exposure visit we met with and learnt from enthusiastic, dedicated and informed NGO staff, doing amazing work under, in most cases incredibly difficult circumstances. They are true professionals with many great achievements, which have changed the lives of an immense number of marginalised and stigmatised groups within Indian society for the better. Without them an awfully large number of people would be in a much more precarious position. I thank them one and all…long may they and their valuable work continue.