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ID: 49231

India - Rooting for change: Building and strengthening of community based organisation of women in sex work

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Organization(s): Swasti in collaboration with Swathi Mahila Sangha

Country(ies): India

Primary thematic focus: Sub-national capacity development: local solutions, national strengths

In a Nutshell:
An NGO helped 13 sex workers to build a robust organisation of over 7000 women, using a variety of innovative methods of capacity development including shadow leadership, OD interventions and other management systems, which led to reduction in HIV prevalence from 20 to 5 percent in six years.

The Story:
Swathi Mahila Sangha (SMS), a sex work collective was established in 2003 with the purpose of creating an organisation that would be able to address issues of sex workers. Initially SMS, with a membership of 13 worked on HIV prevention projects. In early 2005 they got the opportunity to be part of project Pragati, an empowerment initiative of women in sex work. Pragati was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Swasti, a health resource centre that was designing the project asked SMS to partner with them on the rationale that a project for women in sex work needed to be driven by women themselves. As Swasti was keen on not managing the initiative but actually building SMS capacity to manage, capacity development assumed strategic importance. The entire CD strategy was founded the following principles - Women can and should lead themselves; that CD is a long-term strategy requiring continuous inputs (not one off); that CD needs to be practiced, not just taught; and most importantly, that CD mechanisms should be relevant to semi-literate women. The joint goal of Swasti and SMS was to gradually transfer key areas of management to the women and all initiatives flowed from this intent. The key empowerment approach of the Project was to help women inform, analyse and decide for themselves—all of which requires capacities.

The CD strategy began by listening to the women, to their experiences, ideas and priorities and incorporating these into the project. This vested their ownership into the project and built trust with SMS and Swasti. It created an open environment and drew women’s interests. As the project took off, CD was planned at three levels: individual, group and institutional. Individual CD focused on providing updated information to all women in sex work on their human rights, self-defence, gaining skills to protect themselves from HIV and violence and take informed decisions that make a difference to their lives. Group CD focused on capacitating members to address thematic issues such as alcoholism, violence, micro-finance, or build area groups to mobilise and lead women residing in an area for group action. In addition project management, team building, dealing with secondary stakeholders, etc were also part of curriculum. Institutional CB focused on Swathi Mahila Sangha’s organisational development needs. Primarily, the focus was on leadership, enhanced programme management skills, governance, networking and partnership, resource mobilisation, and leadership. Across these levels the CD process adopted varying methods for enhancing knowledge, skills, attitudes and practices including training, workshops, conference, exposure visits, peer review & learning, mentoring, facilitation and shadow leadership.

The shadow leadership was a strategy through which transition of project management from Swasti to SMS was woven into the project design. This strategy was successfully employed to train women to take on significant roles in the project and organisation. For each role a staff member of SMS was paired with one from Swasti. In the first phase, Swasti managers took the lead in management and were assisted by the women who would learn the ropes on the job. In the second phase the women started assuming greater responsibility for the role and finally in the third phase they took on the significant role with the Swasti manager being available for advice and support. Many of the initiative of the project Pragati are now largely managed by the women. As women’s capacities were developed, they were also trained to pass on their skills and knowledge so that subsequent lines of management are built.

Results and Critical Factors:
In 6 years, SMS has grown from 13 to 7000 members and is effectively managing the organisation. It has diversified into multiple projects and has management systems in place: Planning, recruitment, capacity development, mobilisation, stakeholder relations, conflict resolution; all these systems are highly community friendly, while they leverage on latest as well as established management theories and practices (e.g. Tipping Point). SMS has a strong governing board and robust governance mechanism, which complies with all legal and statutory requirements. Women have advanced from field level functionaries to managerial functions—now 74 leaders exist who are handling mid and senior level project Management positions. Over the last 6 years, the HIV Prevalence amongst sex workers in Project Pragati has fallen from 20 % to now about 5 %. The SMS model has contributed to the national programme.

Critical success factors: 1. Clear strategy for CD, which was jointly developed with the community and had principles and mechanisms that were community friendly, which was based on a robust needs assessment. 2. The strength and passion of the women to invest in themselves, their organisation and address their issues against all odds. 3. An NGO partner (Swasti), which truly believed in capabilities of women, was able to connect with them, help them create a vision, and support them through a process that was enabling and empowering. 4. The NGO partner’s long experience in working with community groups and understanding their needs and requirements. 5. Alignment of the roles of the CBO and NGO to build each other, rather than to live off each other. Hence growth of each was in the other’s interest. 6. Having the support of a wide network of other partners who provided training and services in areas of health, law, livelihoods, etc. 7. Planning for transition at the beginning of the project so that adequate time is available and the transition can be gradual and easy to handle 8. Working through multiple CD strategies as per the needs of the individual or groups, which were community friendly.

Name of Primary Contact Person: Shama Karkal

Title of Primary Contact Person: Project Manager

City: Bangalore

Image: Rooting for Change.JPG

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