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Sangeeta Paul standing in a marketplace.

PATH consultant Sangeeta Paul visits New Delhi from her home in Kolkata, where she and her brother grew up in a brothel.

Raised in a brothel, Sangeeta now helps sex workers protect themselves from HIV

Sangeeta Paul grew up in a brothel in Kolkata, India, in a world many children never see. Her mother was a sex worker, and the red light district was her mother’s ticket to food and education for her family.

“We would come home from school and see her standing by the gate, waiting for clients,” Sangeeta recalls. “And my brother and I would say, ‘Why don’t you take a rest?’ But my mother would say that she had to get money for our school fees and that she could not rest yet.”

As a young girl, Sangeeta didn’t know that her mother’s profession was looked down upon until she began attending school. Her mother begged her to keep their lives a secret from her classmates, and Sangeeta complied. It was like living in two worlds: one at home with her mother, another at school among friends and classmates who knew nothing about her address.

“When people found out where I lived, it was very humiliating and sad,” Sangeeta says. “People said my mother was involved in dirty work, but my brother and I never had such feelings. We never lost respect for my mother.”

Today, at age 23, Sangeeta channels that same respect into helping other women just like her mother—and making sure they have the health to provide for their own families. As a consultant with PATH, Sangeeta encourages sex workers to protect themselves from HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.

A vulnerable population

Sangeeta has known of numerous female sex workers who have been infected by HIV and died, leaving behind their children. As many as 2.3 million women engage in sex work in India, and they are among the most vulnerable to contracting HIV. Working in neighborhoods similar to where she grew up, Sangeeta facilitates discussions with sex workers and supports them in developing their own strategies to avoid HIV.

Sangeeta was motivated to join PATH’s efforts after seeing how the organization works within the community to encourage safer practices. “Sex workers would tell me that various organizations came to them with advice about condoms and HIV testing, and still they were becoming infected,” Sangeeta says. “PATH’s approach is to dig deeper, to find out why people make certain choices and help them develop a real plan to keep themselves safe. It takes a lot of thought and discussion. The answers must come from within the population, not from the outside.”

A compassionate advocate

Sangeeta’s level of understanding of the challenges these sex workers face, and her respect for all people, make her a particularly skillful communicator. The women likely have stories very similar to Sangeeta’s mother. Married at age 11, beaten by her husband, and rejected by her family, she ran away and ended up as a sex worker by the time she was 14, just to get money to feed herself.

Sangeeta’s mother is very proud of her daughter. Sangeeta is successfully employed, will soon graduate from college, and plans to save money to open a small business. She is grateful to her mother for always taking care of her, and she hopes to repay her by working hard to fight against HIV infections in India. 

“I owe my mother everything,” Sangeeta says. “I dream of a day when all people will be respected and have a chance to live a safe and healthy life.”

Photo: Satvir Malhotra.