Funded by the European Union
Department of Biotechnology Government of India

Voices from the field: Reaching out to Bangalore’s women in sex work, to prevent cervical cancer

The different realities of women’s lives can immensely impact their access to education, employment and health care. Recognizing these realities is probably the first step in removing barriers which refrain the access to these important aspects of life. A true representation of this, is the work being done by the Department of Gynecologic Oncology, St. John’s Medical College Bangalore, in collaboration with an NGO – Swathi Mahila Sangha, through the PRESCRIP-TEC project. The value of this project to these women became clear during our conversations with them.

The PRESCRIP-TEC project in Bangalore

PRESCRIP-TEC is increasing the adoption of cervical cancer screening within marginalized communities in a city which is home to high-tech industry – Bangalore, in the southern Indian state of Karnakata. The beneficiaries of the project are Bangalore’s women in sex work.

They are taking an innovative cervical cancer screening test, with follow-up and direct treatment as needed. This initiative has been made possible with the help of the Manipal Academy of Higher Education (leading the PRESCRIP-TEC consortium in India) and St. John’s Medical College, an implementing partner, which is collaborating with the Swathi Mahila Sangha, a community-based NGO working for the betterment of women in sex work.

St. John’s Medical College and Swathi Mahila Sangha -saving lives by empowering women

The Department of Gynecologic Oncology, St. John’s Medical College, is actively involved in preventive work in the field of oncology. To implement the PRESCRIP-TEC field work, St. John’s is working with Swathi Mahila sangha.

Bangalore’s sex workers’ experiences of using an HPV self-test

Thanks to the trust the sex workers have in our partners, PRESCRIP-TEC representatives had the opportunity of being welcomed into their homes. They enjoyed an informal chat with them which enabled engagement in a relaxed way – thereby creating a comfortable environment for talking about their experiences.

Most of the sex workers in Bangalore have been caught in a cycle of social exclusion and financial hardship. According to the women we had the opportunity to talk to, they ended up in sex work due to a situation of need and lack of job opportunities. The Swathi Jyothi Cooperative is helping them to get out of this cycle in order to secure a brighter future through micro-financing and social and economic guidance.

The Swathi Mahila Sangha, Swasti Health Catalyst and St. John’s Medical College are creating awareness about women’s rights and promoting health literacy among these communities, through the PRESCRIP-TEC project. Most of the sex workers now know about sexually transmitted diseases, especially the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) -which causes AIDS. Currently, they are learning about the human papillomavirus (HPV), which causes cervical cancer, especially with HPV being highly prevalent in women in sex work.

We know that the disease exists and that it is there. But we didn’t know what caused it and that it is preventable.

Testimony of a sex worker.

The beneficiary women told us that the possibility of being able to do the HPV self-test at home and then give the sample to the Swathi members was very convenient for them. This was especially because of the ease of the test and that it could be done within the comforts of their homes, as they often experience discrimination and exclusion from the health system.

They also expressed that most of them were concerned about their health status and therefore interested in going through the screening process. Given this response, it is clear that the awareness raising campaigns are of paramount importance so that these sex workers and other marginalized women can discover that this opportunity is available to them.

Brief Note on Swathi Mahila Sangha

A group of women involved in sex work was inspired by the movement in Bangladesh and Kolkata towards the sexual and human rights of sex workers. With the help of a local NGO, these women formed a collective called Swathi Mahila Sangha (SMS) on 15th Dec 2003. SMS is legally registered under Karnataka Societies Act.

VISION: Vibrant and sustainable Swathi Mahila Sangha improving women’s lives by responding effectively to the needs of every woman.

MISSION: Providing high-quality services and facilities in accordance with the requirements of Swathi women with self-funded and capacitated human resources.

SMS strategic focus is of two folds:

  • Improve overall quality of life of women in sex work
  • All programs of SMS are based on human rights which embodies dignity, rights, and development.

Empowerment & Dignity:

  • Raise consciousness to have control over resources with overarching principle of preserving dignity
  • Sexual Health & Empowerment Program.

Reach – Members being benefited from SMS.

  • Reached over 13,500 for HIV prevention program & 10,000 for preventive and primary health care
  • Responded and resolved over 9,600 cases of violence.
  • Facilitated over 21,500 civic ID and Govt social protection schemes for over 14,500 people.
  • Over 9,500 members are part of a cooperative and have access to financial services like savings, credit & insurance.
  • Over 1,450 members were treated for alcohol de-addiction.
  • Over 350 women living with HIV are accessing free nutrition supplement every month since 2007

About Swathi Jyothi – the Bank of Empowerment

Swathi Jyoti is a community managed, mutually aided cooperative, providing financial services to its members.It is a micro-finance cooperative by and for women in sex work that seeks to provide financial services to their community. Currently, it has over 9 150 women as shareholders.

Learn more about Swathi Jyothi by watching

About Department of Gynecologic Oncology, St. John’s Medical College and Research Institute (SJRI)

The Department is committed to the comprehensive treatment of women with cancers of the female genital tract. In addition, the department focuses on cervical pre cancer screening, hereditary cancer screening and early detection of cancers and is actively involved in clinical research.

St. John’s Research Institute is an integral part of the St. John’s Academy of Health Sciences. The Academy has a broad, holistic vision and approach to the health problems in the country. Since its inception, it has been involved in the training of health professionals and service delivery through the St. John’s Medical College and Hospital, which is today ranked among the premier medical institutions in India. They are implementing the project in Bangalore on behalf of PRESCRIP-TEC.

Learn more about St. John’s at: and