Author: Md. Mamun-Ur-Rashid; Technical Coordinator-M&E
Source- PWID Project, CARE Bangladesh
Sahanaj Begum (42), who used to be a sex worker and an injecting drug user, did not go into a downward spiral of darkness, unlike many others. Instead, she turned herself back into a new life and has become an asset to the Global Fund People Who Inject Drugs (GFPWID) project for her immense contribution to HIV interventions, where she has worked for 20 years without a tilt. She is the mother of one daughter studying at university and the wife of a working man, a life she has longed for many years.
Her integrity towards her work and her empathy for the women injecting drug users made her enormously popular among the community she serves. As a Peer Outreach Worker (POW), she serves over 80 injecting drug users; among them, more than 30 are women and sex workers. Her primary responsibility is to deliver needles, syringes, condoms, and conduct Behavioral Change Communication (BCC) sessions with her clients.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, she did not take a single day off and worked tenaciously to reach out to her clients’ doors with health products and services, regardless of the challenges she faced due to the pandemic induced lockdown. Being a woman community organizer, working with a stigmatized community during a pandemic became more challenging. Still, she withstood every barrier and continued her service delivery since she believed her clients needed her more. She was harassed several times by the local community people and members of law enforcement agencies, while she was conducting her duty, and, in some cases, she was driven away. However, she did not discontinue her effort and, at times, came up with innovative ideas, such as finding a secondary channel for distributing health products, tele-counseling, and tele-follow-ups. She also searched and delivered daily meals to street-based People Who Inject Drugs (PWID) on foot during the lockdown. She firmly says, “They are my sisters, and I used to be like them. I am not a sex worker anymore, but we share the same soul. Everybody can give up on them, but I cannot because I understand their sorrow”.
She is considered a true hero among the women PWIDs as she is always there when they need her. They lovingly call her as their “Sahanaj Apa” (Sister Sahanaj), and they believe that “Sahanaj Apa” is there for them at any time when they need any help. Sumi, a sex worker and injecting drug user, said, “Almost everyone ignored us during the pandemic except Sahanaj apa. She has been with us through thick and thin, no matter what”.