Kwakwani sex workers organization promotes development, raises self esteem of membersMonday, September 8, 2008 – 12:23 pm
Source: Stabroek News
A few years ago a close relative of Miriam Edwards was diagnosed with HIV/AIDS and like so many other Guyanese, she discriminated against the relative in many ways even going so far as to prevent her children from eating food prepared by her.
Edwards did this despite the fact that she was living a risky life as a sex worker at the time and she too needed counselling and support.
Today, while Edwards is still torn up over her actions, in memory of the relative she has since been helping persons living with HIV/AIDS and has started a vibrant group for sex workers.
She did not allow her relative to die without showing her that she cared, and after her relative became hospitalised she was the only family member who took care of her.
As the Director of the ‘One Love’ Kwakwani Sex Workers organisation, Edwards said that the group was hoping to raise the self-esteem of members and to promote their development through education and participation in social activities.
The group is prepared to fight against the violence and abuse sex workers suffer and to help them get access to skills training. The protection of their families is also high on the list of priorities and they hope to establish day-care centres, among other things.
While the group is still young, Edwards, who is also the head of the Caribbean Sex Workers Coalition, said they had 25 members who were sex workers, as well as other persons who had joined in order to assist her in achieving a better standard of living for sex workers in the community.
In a recent interview with Stabroek News, Edwards said she had become motivated after being selected to head the Caribbean group.
Edwards is a very busy woman, being head of her group as well as a sex worker-peer educator in New Amsterdam where she lives. She also travels to all the communities in the Berbice River, educating residents about HIV/AIDS, taking taped episodes of the radio programme Merundoi, in which she plays a role, and holding discussions after these are aired. She also works at the New Amsterdam prisons.
“When she [her relative] died, I promise that I will look to people with HIV,” Edwards said. She does volunteer work at hospitals, mostly at the New Amsterdam institution, the town she now calls home.
Edwards told this newspaper she had been born and bred in Kwakwani, and she felt that that community needed her support more than any other.
She said during her work as a peer educator for sex workers she realised that the area really needed some form of representation for sex workers.
“Kwakwani is an area where you have bauxite and you have mining going on up the river, so you have men who would come and go. We have these women who would have sex with them for money, and we have people who would not call themselves sex workers but they still have sex with these men for money. But they would not say sex work… and when you look at it they are at risk… and I looked at them and said they are my people and they need such an organisation,” she said.
She described her organisation as one which provides the opportunity for its members to meet and share experiences, and offer support to each other. In the group the women can find other women who are having some of the same experiences they have had.
Edwards has since approached the National AIDS Programme Secretariat (NAPS), and representatives from the secretariat are expected to visit the community to conduct some skills training with the members of the organization. “It would be very good for them,” Edwards said. She is hoping that other organisations would come on board to work with her group members so as to improve their lives.
Asked if her aim is to get her members to discontinue their lives as sex workers, Edwards said if she were to do so she would first have to create jobs for them.
“I cannot create jobs for them, but I am working with them and I hope to give them skills training, so that they can do something for themselves other than being a sex worker; that is my hope. And I am trying to let people recognise them as persons and not discriminate against them… Being a sex worker is not nothing easy; to go out there and be a sex worker is very hard. So I am trying to educate other people in the community to respect these people and stop treating them like outcasts.”
Edwards also stated that some of her members had a sound educational background, but because there were no job opportunities in the community they were forced to make money the best way possible.
“They are willing to do other things, but because there are no job opportunities for them… and you have these men coming in and they throwing the big money and the women will have sex with them…”
Her members are forced to walk down the streets and hear themselves being referred to by derogatory names, and “people treat them like nothing – like some church people would try to say they are not fit because they are sex workers.”
“We have sex workers who would do sex work and sometimes their children would turn to sex work and because the community is so small and we have no job opportunities we have a lot of teenage pregnancies. So I want to work with all these people…” she said.
Being true to
Edwards said that at present members of her organisation are going out into the community educating the populace about HIV/AIDS while sharing out condoms.
She pointed out that her hands were tied, and the most she could do is to educate persons about the virus in an effort to reduce stigma and discrimination and offer some sort of support base for them.
She recalled that when she and others came up with the idea of forming the group they wanted to be “true” to themselves and instead of hiding behind another name they made it known that they were sex workers.
“We wanted to be recognised as humans, let people recognise us for who we are; we said we want to be true to ourselves and we said we are going to make a sex worker group.”
She said it was not difficult to recruit members as persons were longing to be part of some organisation where they were recognised.
Edwards knows what her members are experiencing because of the fact that she was once there, and she said she was not ashamed for persons to know that she was once a sex worker, hence the reason for her being the director of the group.
“Sometimes we got to do what we got to do, sometimes you don’t want to go out there and have sex for money but because of your situation… and that is why I don’t discriminate… because I know I was there and I had a reason why I was there.”
She says she is the mother of five girls and two boys between the ages of 9 and 23. She had her first child when she was just 15 years old. She said her past had not affected her children in any way, and in fact the work that she was now involved in had made her children very proud.
Funding for kitchen
Edwards said that she was hoping to receive funding to establish a kitchen for her members where they could come together and cook and probably sell their dishes.
“They can sell these things [the dishes] and they wouldn’t have to be on the streets as often, because sometimes it can get real hard and they have kids to send to school and some of them have six children.”
She said that her group had access to a building where the kitchen could be established, but it needed repairs, and it was their wish that an organisation or benevolent person could assist them in getting it done.
Edwards said should the building be repaired it would be possible for them to create a space where their members could seek refuge should they experience problems at home. “They can come and lie down and sleep, and talk to others and relax.”
The group is also seeking a donation of books and some furniture for their children-friendly corner that has been established for the children of members. “We have people who are willing to volunteer to teach these children to read, but we also need more volunteers.”
Edwards said she was also open to guidance from persons in taking her group in the right direction, as she was still new to being a director, and while she had many ideas she needed assistance to execute them.
In the meantime, persons interested in assisting Edwards and her group can dial 688-3008 and 333-3701.