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Voices from the Field: India

Stories of Traditional Female Sex Workers

September 16, 2010 - India

by Jis Jose and Jamie Shaff

In April 2010, RMF and JJHSS joined with UNFPA to develop interventions targeting Female Sex Workers (FSWs), one of the High Risk Groups for HIV/AIDS. Currently, we have programs in two districts of Madhya Pradesh, Jhabua and Nimach. Jis Jose is the Documentation Officer for the program, and recently visited the Nimach branch of the program. He returned with some fascinating stories, and agreed to share a couple of them in this blog.

photo: Meenu

Before I tell you about this girl you must know about the Bhanֽchara caste that exists in the District of Nimach in the state of Madhya Pradesh, India. Bhanֽchara is a lower class caste of which girls traditionally enter into prostitution to support their family. Earlier, most of the girls from this caste entered prostitution as a custom, but today married women are not required to enter into prostitution. For these women, prostitution is more of a custom than economic necessity. While Nimach prostitutes have, in general, strong community ties and are not easily exploited, the inner stories vary as the general public does not readily help them in times of need.


Meenu (Name Changed) is a student of an English Medium School and is very good at her studies. Her mother was a victim of partner or client violence that Female Sex Workers (FSWs) suffer from.  Meenu’s mother, Meera (name changed), was one of the most beautiful FSWs of the area. She had a good number of clients. She used to earn well. Meera fell in love with one bus conductor and accepted him at her home. They had a child together, Meenu, and seemed to have a relatively healthy relationship, away from public eye.

One morning Meera was found missing—by 10am, the village was shocked to find her body without life covered with blood in the cornfield.  The villagers knew that she had a client the previous evening and that her lover was missing, but police inquiries yielded no information. Meenu became alone in this big world.


Sheeba is a 45-year-old woman whose legs were attacked by Polio, leaving her unable to walk. She is an FSW from the Bhanchara cast, and has two daughters. She too has a love story. Sheeba loved a tailor who was very sympathetic to her. She thought her lover would support her children, so that they would never need to enter the flesh trade to live. One day he went missing, leaving the children without a father. The only means of economic support became the mother’s job as a sex worker.  Today, Sheeba is determined that her daughters will never have to become FSWs to support themselves. She openly informs all of her clients of this need to support her children, and has taken great lengths to educate her daughters.

photo: FWS accepting condoms from a Peer Educator at the Drop-in Center

Today, Meenu is supported by the Bhanchara community she and her mother are from.  The women in the community have taken her in and help her to access the education necessary to depart from traditions of sex work.  By working directly with communities, RMF learns a great deal about the traditions that exist in the world, and is better able to provide necessary services. Stories such as Meenu’s are common, as FSWs around the world live in fear of persecution and violence. RMF works to empower the women partaking in our programs by providing them with access to knowledge, medical care, and support.  The valuable information and stories our incredible staff members, such as Jis, bring back from the field help us to create the best possible solution for these communities.

For more information about RMF’s HIV/AIDS outreach programs in India, click here.

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