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Geeta Makula, sitting in a group of women.

Geeta Makula supports sex workers in building skills and choices to protect themselves from HIV and other health risks.

Geeta is empowering fellow sex workers in India to protect themselves from HIV

Geeta Ravi Makula, 34, is a sex worker in India. Like so many women in the sex trade, she started the work out of necessity, as a way to survive after her husband left her with two small children and no income. And like many of her friends, her job puts her at risk of being infected by HIV.

She knew little of sexually transmitted infections—and little of the world —when she married at age 22. Her husband seemed like a nice man at first, but soon he started drinking. Before long, the situation was out of control.

“He would drink every day and spend all our money,” Geeta recalls. “He did not take care of us, and he couldn’t meet the needs of our children.”

Eventually he abandoned her, leaving Geeta alone with two children and no income. “I had to do whatever I could to survive,” she says.

She found employment as a house maid and a shop worker, but at both jobs her bosses tried to force her to have sex with them before they would pay her. After several desperate months, a friend told Geeta that there were men who would pay money for sex. Geeta was ashamed and frightened, but she felt she had no choice. She joined the sex trade.

Losing friends to HIV

Geeta worked as a sex worker for a year before she learned about HIV. At first, the illness was a mystery to her, something that struck other sex workers with no apparent cause. She watched one friend in the trade grow weak, stop eating, and seemingly waste away, leaving behind small children when she died. Geeta was terrified. She didn’t know what caused the illness or how to stop it. The threat seemed overwhelming, and its destruction continued. She saw at least 30 other women die from the disease and twice that many become ill.

“No one can think positively about their decisions and their lives if they’re just told what to do.”

Geeta felt enormous relief when, while training to become a peer educator with a local HIV intervention project, she learned how to protect herself and her friends from HIV. Later, when she joined PATH as a consultant, she reached out to other sex workers, helping them find ways to protect themselves.

Through PATH’s InterAct and Convergence projects, Geeta now provides safe gathering places for sex workers inside anonymous buildings, away from the stigmas and pressures of everyday lives, where the women can talk about strategies for staying safe. Using interpersonal communication and interactive theater, Geeta and other health advocates are helping women work through solutions to common problems—violence, coercion, discrimination—and find support for their situations. The project helps women evaluate their choices rather than prescribe solutions for them.

Geeta joined these gatherings and soon became a peer educator to encourage other women to learn about their safety. She now has the skills to protect herself, and her efforts to help other women have transformed her self-image.

Taking control of the future

Geeta’s own transformation has opened the way to a better life for her children. Her 17-year-old son is now finishing school, and her daughter, 19, is studying engineering.

Geeta hopes that someday every woman has a chance to get an education, earn a living, and not fall prey to the same difficulties she has experienced. And she believes that PATH’s outreach to women in sex work is making that possible.

“No one can think positively about their decisions and their lives if they’re just told what to do,” Geeta says. “But with PATH, we help our peers in thinking about the consequences of our choices and feeling worthy of taking more control of our future. And that can make all the difference.”

Photo: Satvir Malhotra.