Lakshmi Dudekula

To survive, Lakshmi turned to life in a brothel. Now she helps sex workers avoid HIV infection and build better lives.

Lakshmi became a peer counselor and now helps other sex workers protect themselves from HIV

Married at 19, Lakshmi Devi Dudekula had high hopes for her life in Andhra Pradesh, a state in southeastern India. After a few years, however, her husband lost his job and then abandoned her.

With a nine-month-old baby and another on the way, Lakshmi looked for work but found none. When her baby got sick, she needed money for medical care. In desperation, she agreed to have sex with a man in her neighborhood for five rupees (equivalent to about 12 cents), and with that money, she bought medicine for her baby. To survive, she gradually turned to life in a brothel.

The larger problem

Up to 2 million women in India are sex workers. Because the primary mode of HIV transmission in India is sex between men and women, red light districts in major cities and transportation hubs are major sources of infection. With little information and social power, women in brothels often have little or no protection against HIV.

PATH has partnered with local groups and individuals to prevent HIV infection and restore hope among these women, despite daunting challenges. “For one thing,” says M. Samitra, a project coordinator with a partner organization, “the women do not have any sense that their lives can change for the better. It often takes years for sex workers to begin to solve their problems because they are so downtrodden and poor. They have a crippling sense of helplessness that comes from being scorned in society.”

“I got a chance to help others, and it’s been an inspiration for my life that has ignited my spirit.”

To reach the sex worker community with HIV prevention information and support, PATH and other groups have recruited peer counselors. These counselors can establish rapport and communicate effectively with sex workers because they understand, through firsthand  experience, the overwhelming challenges facing these women.

Turning a corner

For Lakshmi, a major turning point came after 15 years as a sex worker, when she hit bottom. “There were days when I was not having food, five or six days in a row, because of poverty, because of my job, because of my family problems. My relatives hated me, they discarded me, and my friends discarded me because I had gone into sex work. I even thought about ending my life.”

Then, five years ago, Lakshmi found a way forward for herself and her children through work as a peer counselor for sex workers. Blessed with strong communication skills and sensitivity to others’ problems, Lakshmi has been a natural for the job, which includes use of magnet theater to engage women in conversation. She has been so successful that she was invited to speak at an AIDS conference in Canada.

Today, Lakshmi is a middle-aged mother with two teenage boys, her life transformed by her dedication to help sex workers avoid HIV infection and build better lives. “This job has made all the difference to me,” she says. “It gives me a special purpose. Someone believes in me. I can do something with my life, to help other women.”

“I got a chance to help others, and it’s been an inspiration for my life that has ignited my spirit,” Lakshmi says.

Photo: Satvir Malhotra.