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Unique Savings Scheme Aids Sex Workers

Chennai: A health-linked savings scheme has given a new meaning to life for thousands of sex workers, members of the transgender community// and HIV positive people in Tamil Nadu.

The scheme by the Tamil Nadu AIDS Initiative (TAI) and the Voluntary Health Service (VHS) aims at educating the marginalized communities about the benefits of saving. People are encouraged to drop their meagre savings in hundis (mud pots), take them to TAI centres and later open bank accounts.

Said Geeta, a commercial sex worker: "I have been in the profession for 10 years. It was only recently that I learnt how to save." Geeta is also a member of the Association for Rural Mass, an NGO that has introduced hundreds of commercial sex workers to anti-AIDS initiatives.

"I saved in a small hundi for the last three years - just Rs.3,750. At the end of January, I started another (hundi). I never had comfortable savings. But this scheme has given me the opportunity to do so," she added.

The scheme, launched in October 2006, was initially for only three months. They have now continued it among TAI and VHS' 50,000-strong community of high-risk groups like sex workers, transgenders, HIV positive and the destitute.

"Marginalised women and members of the transgender community are unable to protect themselves from violence and infections because of their low negotiating skills. We are working with communities that have no idea what it means to save or open a bank account," says TAI director Lakshmi Bai.

"Once we initiated the process, we were shocked to find that within three months hundreds of bank accounts were opened," she exclaimed.

At present, over 6,000 women and transgender people have savings accounts negotiated by TAI.

They take their hundis to the TAI centre and deposit their savings in their respective bank accounts when they go for their monthly health checkups. There are community members who have saved to the tune of Rs.20,000 in three months.

But banks do not want to have the marginalised as account holders, say officials. "Though I wanted to save money in a bank, I had problems opening an account due to my gender," Vidya, a transgender person, told IANS.

"This programme has helped me start an account. I've now learnt to differentiate between necessity and luxury. I cut down most of my expenses. Now I am an expert in making flower vases and my savings help me market the products. I am now independent," said a proud Vidya.

TAI and VHS recently presented awards for the best savers in a contest called 'Naallay Rani' or the 'Queen of Tomorrow'.

Stunned that she had won the best-saver award, Muniamma from Dharmapuri district said: "I never dreamt that I would win the award with the small amounts of money I set aside. But now I find that my efforts have yielded results."

Explained Jayashree, TAI's communication officer: "The idea is not to just reward them for their savings but their consistency and the ability to standout as role models."

N.S. Murali, honorary secretary of VHS, added: "Savings is integrally linked to a feeling of well-being and empowerment. Such an event recognises their efforts in accessing health care services and staying healthy."

Activist Aarthi Pai noted that initial feedback during interactions showed training to save had been most valued by the people.

"The most important thing is that they are now at least tracking how much they earn and spend in a month," she said.

People are praising the scheme.

"The programme made us think about our future and the need for developing mechanisms to take care of us," said Sathyavathi, who has saved Rs.7,000 in three months.

Added Jamuna Rani, a former sex worker from Vellore: "My children have also become 'Naallay Rani'."

"They asked me about the savings box. When they learnt that we could save, my children got separate boxes of their own," said Rani, now an AIDS awareness community worker.


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