September 18-24, 2002

Paroma Basu

Giving AIDS the red light

The Sonagachi AIDS Project in Kolkata, India, has gone from being a quasi-governmental program to one of the largest community-run intervention projects in the world. Sex workers now run the show, and in Sonagachi (meaning "golden tree"), famous as the oldest, largest, and most storied red-light district in the city, only 9 percent of about 6,000 sex workers are HIV-positive. In comparison, as many as 70 percent of prostitutes in Mumbai (formerly Bombay) were HIV-positive in 1997.

The women organized the Durbar Mahila Samawaya Committee — Asia's first union of sex workers — in 1997 and took control of the local government AIDS project. With 60,000 male and female members in West Bengal, the union worked for the decriminalization of prostitution, for equal worker's rights, and entitlement to negotiate working conditions.

Dr. Smaraajit Jana, a government epidemiologist who spearheaded the Sonagachi project, explored enhancing self-esteem as part of changing deeply entrenched sexual practices by the sex workers. He trained 12 sex workers to come forward as "peer educators." These educators informed about STDs and urged the workers to get clinic-approved blood tests. Soon hundreds of women were refusing unprotected sex, even if their clients offered to pay more. "When a customer comes, I take the money first and then let him in my room," said Priya Begum, 23, a Sonagachi sex worker. "Then I ask whether he'll use a condom. If he says no, I keep the money and show him out," she said.

Today, 430 peer educators spread awareness throughout Bengal, and 36 brothel-based medical clinics regularly test sex workers. DMSC has also established a school for sex workers' children, a loan co-op, and a cultural group that spreads AIDS awareness through music, dance and street theater.

Recently, Sonagachi AIDS Project has inspired broader projects. Responding to the increasing epidemic in India — the total number of people living with AIDS in India in 2001 was 3.97 million, according to UNAIDS — a group of professionals and citizens opened the City Counseling Center in downtown Kolkata, and with it an affiliate support network — the Kolkata Network of HIV Positive People. "Intervention programs running in high-risk areas are only the tip of the iceberg. Awareness has to spread to the rest of society," said Dr. Debjani Banerjee, one of CCC's coordinators.

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Created: September 21, 2002
Last modified: September 21, 2002
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