Years ago, she was a school student in Assonora, Goa, before her relatives sold her for a pittance to a brothel in Pune. And for decades after that, Mary D’Souza’s life was a living nightmare; she had to beg for food, face torture for refusing sex with customers, and had to eventually give in. As her body was wracked with both HIV and TB, Mary almost gave up hope. Yet, with the help of social workers, she not only managed to survive, but she beat apparently insurmountable odds to emerge stronger. Today, Mary works at a rehabilitation centre in Baramati, where she takes care of the children of sex workers.
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“There were times when I did not feel like living. I had lost all hope. First, they beat me up badly. I was not given food… after two days of remaining hungry, I gave in. I had to clean the brothel keeper’s home and then woo customers in the evening, Soon, I was infected with TB and I was coughing so violently that even the brothel keeper kept me out of the business,” says Mary (38). She continues, “My daughter was barely one month old when she had to be admitted to the hospital for food poisoning. That’s when they told me she had HIV. They asked me to undergo a test and soon I realised I also had the virus”. As she shuttled between Aundh General Hospital to receive treatment for TB, and Sassoon General Hospital for HIV treatment, Mary had no money to look after her daughter.
“The brothel keeper asked me for Rs 40,000… she threatened me that unless I paid the amount, she would keep my daughter and force her to join flesh trade. I rebelled..,” says Mary. Help came in the form of an AIDS awareness camp, conducted by the People’s Health Organisation, an NGO at Budhwar Peth. “They saw that I did not have anything to feed my child, so they took me under their care. Soon, they offered me a monthly salary of Rs 100 to work with them,” she says. Mary also received help from Dr I S Gilada, a noted HIV specialist from Mumbai, and soon she was introduced to some social workers from abroad, who sponsored her visits to Geneva and Australia, as part of a training for underprivileged people, to help them deal positively with HIV.
“By then, I had had my second child, a son… with a heavy heart, I had to give him up for adoption. Today, he is in Geneva with his adopted parents, but he talks to me over the phone. “There were times when depression got hold of me… I used to drink a lot. I had no love in my life… but after receiving anti-retroviral treatment and therapy, I started to recover. I helped other sex workers… we set up a friends’ group and soon I started taking them for HIV tests. After the death of one of the sex workers, I decided to adopt her child and today both my adopted daughter as well as my own daughter stay at a Mumbai hostel. They are studying in college,” says Mary. Kayakalp, an NGO authorised by the Maharashtra State AIDS Control Society to work with sex workers, gave her a job. For a monthly salary of Rs 7,500, apart from medical costs, Mary looks after the children of sex workers at a rehabilitation centre.
Seema Waghmode, coordinator of Kayakalp, says Mary is “truly representative” of what a woman is capable of achieving. “Despite the hardships, she did not give up. If there is a death, Mary is the first one to arrange for a funeral and console the family members. Today… she no longer lives for herself but wants to help others,” says Waghmode.