Sex workers in India tackle HIV and abuse

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Subject: Sex workers in India tackle HIV and abuse
From: John Davies (
Date: Tue Jan 05 1999 - 05:37:20 EST

Dear All,

While the focus of this article is on HIV prevention it also shows how
protecting and promoting sex workers right can impact on abuses related to
trafficking. It also shows that the myth of women from the developing world
are unable to address these issues effectively to be a misconstruction.

Happy New Year to all.

John Davies

NY Times P 1

January 4, 1999

Going Brothel to Brothel, Prostitutes Preach About Using Condoms


CALCUTTA, India -- In the Sonagachi red-light district, where thousands of
women sell their bodies along narrow, thronged lanes, it is the prostitutes
themselves who have become the leading crusaders against AIDS.

Like missionaries spreading the gospel, scores go forth each morning from
brothel to brothel, preaching to madams, pimps and other prostitutes about
the importance of using condoms, the most effective shield against HIV

And they have done much more than talk. These women, despised outcasts in
Indian society, have organized more than half the prostitutes of Sonagachi
into a force with the influence to challenge any pimp or madam who would
insist on a customer's right to sex without a condom. They call themselves
a committee, but operate as a kind of labor union for the world's oldest

Later this year, the Indian government will use the Sonagachi project as
its model in a large-scale battle against AIDS, waged from red-light
district to red-light district, across the vastness of this country of
almost a billion people.

The hope is that if India acts swiftly, while the overall infection rate is
still relatively low, at less than 1 percent of the total adult population,
it can avoid the horrific burden of death that afflicts Africa. Even now,
because of its immense population, India already has 4 million people
estimated to be infected with the virus.

In a line of work that spawns cut-throat competition among desperately poor
women, and that regularly prompts prostitutes to risk death by HIV
infection for 50 cents per sex act, the Sonagachi project has knit them
together to fight for their rights and their lives.

Condom use in Sonagachi has soared, from 3 percent in 1992, when the
project began, to 90 percent in 1998. Researchers who have conducted random
sample surveys in Sonagachi have also found that HIV infection rates among
prostitutes here have been held to about 5 percent, a fraction of the more
than 50 percent of prostitutes infected in Bombay.

Slowing the rate of infection among prostitutes and their customers is
essential to protecting the general population, epidemiologists say. The
truck drivers and migrant workers who go to prostitutes are the same people
who are carrying the disease back to wives and lovers in villages all over
the country.

These days, when 30-year-old Pushpa Das, a prostitute in Sonagachi, is
confronted by a man who refuses to diminish his pleasure by wearing a
condom, she tells him to go away and knows her madam will back her up.

"Sometimes I have to lose a customer, but I don't want to get HIV," Mrs.
Das said evenly. "I just return the money."

Mrs. Das cannot afford to die. Her husband is out of work. Her $50 a month
earnings keep hunger at bay for her 11-year-old daughter, Asha, and her
extended family. Before she became a prostitute, she had been making $10 a
month as a maid and her family was down to one meal a day.

The Sonagachi project pays 180 prostitutes about $1 a day each to spread
the word about AIDS and condoms. The British government, long the colonial
power in India, pays for the project and is one of the largest foreign aid
donors supporting health programs here. This year the Indian government,
with about $50 million in financial backing from the World Bank, will begin
using nonprofit groups and government agencies in a nationwide effort to
mobilize prostitutes against the disease. The project in Sonagachi costs
only about $210,000 a year.

"The experience from other parts of the world and from Sonagachi suggests
that such efforts are the single most important thing that can be done to
try to control the epidemic," said Prabat Jha, an epidemiologist at the
World Bank who is team leader for its AIDS project in India.

One recent morning a group of prostitutes sat on the balcony of their
brothel overlooking a vibrant, clogged lane in Sonagachi. It was too early
for customers, so the women's faces were free of any makeup. Over the
jangling of hand-pulled carriages and the cries of hawkers selling papayas,
they spoke of the poverty that had driven them into the sex trade.

Milan Sarkar, a 21-year-old in a loose orange shift, was married at 15 and
abandoned by her husband at 16, with an infant son, Anoop, to raise. There
is no government safety net here, so a year ago she went to Sonagachi. Her
income now supports her parents, two siblings and her 5-year-old son. Ms.
Sarkar shields Anoop from the knowledge of how she makes a living, telling
him only that she has to go to work while he stays with his grandparents.

Ms. Sarkar said she refuses to have sex without a condom, but some drunken
men force themselves on her, while others tear the condoms with their nails
so they will peel off during sex.

"I'm very frightened about AIDS," she said. "My son and my whole family
depend on me. My father is old and won't be able to continue working. I
have to live here for them. And it is a terrible pressure."

The prostitutes who work in the project have used a combination of sweet
talk and occasional arm-twisting to persuade madams about condom usage.
Delegations of prostitutes, wearing distinctive green medical jackets over
their saris, visit madams and tell them, "If you are to enjoy the fruits of
the tree, you must keep the tree healthy."

Gita Das, a 50-year-old madam, manages five prostitutes who commute to
Sonagachi daily to work in two small, dingy rooms. Mrs. Das, who wears a
bindi, the red dot on a woman's forehead that signifies her status as a
married woman, inherited the role of madam from her mother-in-law 25 years

She has become a convert to condoms out of her own self-interest. "I argue
with the customers, 'You should use condoms,"' she said. "If they refuse I
send them away. If the girls use condoms and stay healthy, that helps keep
them loyal to me."

Not every expert is sure the Sonagachi approach will work outside the state
of West Bengal. Calcutta, its capital, has India's strongest tradition of
labor unionism, an inspiration for the Sonagachi project. In contrast,
Bombay, the epicenter of the epidemic, has a brutal and powerful mafia that
runs the sex trade. Gangsters are likely to resist efforts to organize

Nonetheless, even the skeptics agree that India must act. "If you don't try
to take these efforts to scale, you'll have little wonderful corners, but
you won't address the big issues that India poses by its sheer size," said
Gordon Alexander, who heads the U.N. AIDS program in India.

This nation is only now awakening to the dangers the epidemic poses. Last
month, for the first time, an Indian prime minister spoke publicly and at
length about the disease. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee declared HIV
and AIDS to be the country's most serious public health challenge.

"When HIV appeared in India in 1986, everybody thought that it is a Western
disease that will be contracted only by sex workers in red-light areas, gay
men and injecting drug users," Vajpayee said. "The consequences of that
myopic view are now upon us."

The first prostitutes who ventured into Sonagachi and other red-light
districts in Calcutta to talk about the prevention of AIDS were chased off
with brooms, drenched with buckets of water and spat on. Prostitutes and
madams feared that an insistence on condoms would drive customers away.

Sadhana Mukherjee, 40, remembers hoodlums threatening to strip her naked,
beat her up and throw her out of the red-light district unless she stopped
proselytizing for condoms. But she and her supervisor politely explained
their strategy: If the district became known for AIDS, that would really
drive customers away. They were not trying to destroy the sex trade, only
to insure the health of prostitutes.

Like many of the other prostitutes working in the project, Ms. Mukherjee
keenly felt the sting of society's contempt, but she was proud that she had
survived by her wits.

When she was 12 her family was duped into giving her up to a woman who
promised to find her work in a plastics factory in Calcutta. Instead, Ms.
Mukherjee said, the woman sold her to a brothel for $10.

"I was beaten on the cheeks, tugged by my hair, forced to drink alcohol,
strangled so I couldn't swallow for two weeks," she said. "The rage I felt
about being tortured so mercilessly has burned within me from the first

It is those memories of her first terrible years in the sex trade that have
made her a passionate and untiring worker for the rights of prostitutes in

And the respect with which she and the other prostitutes have been treated
in the project has strengthened their bond. They all speak with affection
of Smarajit Jana, the slight, mustachioed epidemiologist who was assigned
to run the Sonagachi project by the nation's All India Institute of Hygiene
and Public Health, part of the Indian government's ministry of health.

"He's like a father and a mother to us," said Minu Adhikari, one of the
first prostitutes hired by the project. "We were stigmatized by everyone
around us. He showered us with love and affection."

Jana said he quickly realized that reaching the prostitutes would require
much more than a narrow focus on AIDS. In his first week on the job, the
courteous but rather formal researcher visited a brothel. He was
introduced, he said, as "the big doctor from the big hospital," and found
the prostitutes reluctant to talk.

But by the third day, they began asking him for medical advice. To his
astonishment, the first nine women wanted help with infertility problems,
common among prostitutes who have had repeated bouts of sexually
transmitted diseases.

"That opened my eyes," he said. "They're like any other women. They want a
child. They have the same heart, the same minds and feelings."

The health clinic that opened in Sonagachi to treat syphilis and gonorrhea
wound up treating women and children. It was the first time most
prostitutes had an alternative to quack doctors who practice in the
red-light district.

Just a year and a half after the project began, the percentage of
prostitutes who said they used condoms had risen from almost nothing to 70

Something less tangible had also begun to happen. The prostitutes hired by
the project were turning into a force to be reckoned with in the power
structure of the red-light district -- a place where madams, pimps,
hoodlums, money lenders and quacks once reigned supreme.

The literate prostitutes in the project began teaching the others to read
in makeshift daily classes held on plastic sheeting spread on the bare
ground in the clinic's courtyard -- classes that continue even now.

By 1994 they began demanding things that went way beyond the project's
mandate. They wanted police protection from hoodlums. They wanted police
raids to stop. They wanted a place to borrow money at fair rates.

Jana said he also realized that the prostitutes needed more than
information and condoms to prevent the spread of HIV.

"They must enforce condom use by the clients, for which they need skill,
confidence and power," he said.

With his encouragement, the prostitutes organized the Women's Collaborative
Committee in 1995. The committee now has about 30,000 members in West
Bengal, each paying dues of about 50 cents a year.

They have since formed their own financial cooperative to escape the
clutches of money lenders who charge interest rates of at least 1,000
percent a year. To do so, committee members persuaded the state government
to dissolve a requirement that members of a cooperative have legal standing
as people of "good moral character."

Hundreds of prostitutes have repeatedly encircled police stations to demand
action against criminals. In one case, men who had tortured two prostitutes
with blades and cigarette butts had gone unpunished. After the prostitutes
held their noisy protest, police arrested the men and beat them up, the
gratified prostitutes said.

The women have also intervened to rescue child prostitutes sold or duped
into the trade. The committee members' motives are altruistic yet
self-interested. The under-age girls are tough competition in a market that
prizes youth, and they also attract police raids that disrupt business.

In 1997, on a routine visit to a brothel, Ms. Adhikari, one of the
prostitutes working in the project, said she discovered a 13-year-old girl
from Bangladesh who had been sold to a madam. Ms. Adhikari said she simply
walked out with the girl and the committee later returned her to her family.

"The committee explains to the madam that this is not done," Ms. Adhikari
said. "She doesn't have the muscle to fight us. We're too big for her. She
can't go to the police. And now that we're so organized, she can't go to
the hoodlums either."

The percentage of prostitutes 19 or younger in Sonagachi dropped from about
one in five in 1995 to about one in 30 in 1998, according to project

In recent years the project has expanded beyond the confines of Sonagachi,
home to about 6,000 prostitutes, into other red-light districts in Calcutta
and nearby areas, where about 21,000 prostitutes work. It employs 180
prostitutes and 100 other workers and operates 12 health clinics.

The government's All India Institute of Hygiene and Public Health runs the
project in collaboration with three nonprofit groups and the prostitutes'

They have managed to do the work at low cost. The main office is a
windowless basement. The project has cut back on distribution of free
condoms and sells many of them through the cooperative at bulk rates. The
staff is paid very little by Western standards. Medicines in India are

Bharati Dey, a 38-year-old prostitute, joined the project in 1997 to work
in Talpukur, a red-light district in a northern suburb. She recently
visited a defiant madam who refused to require customers visiting her
brothel to wear a condom.

Ms. Dey said she took the nine prostitutes in the brothel aside and
suggested they disappear for a few days. "Less than an hour after they
left, the madam gave in," Ms. Dey said. "But they did not return for three

It was a message of strength that quickly spread to other madams.

Jana and the prostitutes who work in the Sonagachi project will soon become
missionaries far beyond the confines of Calcutta. Jana, 45, will leave his
post in Sonagachi and plans to advise the Indian government in its efforts
to expand the model nationwide.

J.V.R. Prasada Rao, director of India's National AIDS Control Organization,
said he would tap the expertise of the prostitutes, as well as that of
Jana. "We're going to take the Sonagachi girls to Bombay and ask them to
talk to the madams and sex workers," he said.

Bombay is ground zero for AIDS in India. Almost half the people infected
with the HIV virus live in the state of Maharastra and its capital, Bombay.
And rates of HIV infection among prostitutes in its sprawling sex industry
are already very high.

The prostitutes in Bombay are powerless, not only against the disease, but
against the gangsters who run the trade. There are several small programs
there that employ prostitutes to spread the word about condoms and that
provide prostitutes with health care, but none of them have attempted to
organize the women.

The difference in the moods of the red-light districts of Calcutta and
Bombay can be sensed immediately. In Calcutta, many prostitutes talk openly
in front of their madams. In Bombay, they speak quietly, glancing furtively
over their shoulders to make sure no one hears.

In Calcutta, many of the prostitutes wear decorous saris in muted colors
and look a lot like office workers waiting impassively at a bus stop.

In Bombay, they are tarted up in shiny red lip gloss, midriff-bearing
halters, skin-tight velvet pants and gaudy saris. They pose aggressively
and their faces are set in a sulky come-on. They stand in the lurid light
of Falkland Road like Broadway actresses on a gritty stage. Unprotected
from HIV, they are tempting death to come knocking.

Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company

        ------ sig of the month -----(Jan 1999)-------------- 1-500-EGO-TRIP
                It's often easier to say "No" than "No more"

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