The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Odds against safe sex

Mumbai, Dec. 1: Her beauty, she says, was her first nemesis. The final one could be AIDS.

Rakhi has left far behind those little girls with whom she played gulli danda in Shahjahanpur, Uttar Pradesh. Life changed when a rich businessman from Allahabad promised to waive the loan her father had taken from him for a night with her. She was 16.

“He actually paid Rs 1.5 lakh for my virginity,” Rakhi, 18, says.

Now a call girl who frequents some of the popular pickup joints that masquerade as discos, Rakhi says: “After that day, I just decided my father should live with his peace and I should pursue wealth. The road led me to Mumbai.”

Rakhi now travels only by taxi, smokes Classic Milds and wears expensive perfumes. She can afford it, she says, adding that she charges anything between Rs 5,000 and Rs 7,000 from her customers.

“The problem is that some men (her customers) refuse to use condoms,” Rakhi says. “That is the scariest part. I know I am playing with my life and any day I can get AIDS.”

Coming out of a seminar on World AIDS Day, Rakhi says awareness about the disease is no more the main issue. “It is equality and the respect that comes with it. All my friends and their customers know about AIDS, but many simply refuse to use a condom. It is unwise and sometimes risky to turn them away. But I know things will change once women refuse to give in and men become more sensitive towards women in general and sex workers in particular.”

Her friend, who calls herself Saheli, adds that the scenario will not change as long as women sex workers don’t stick together and refuse to deal with customers who don’t use condoms. “There are always some women who are afraid of a customer or need more money. They are the ones who cave in,” Saheli says, adding that all sex workers should take a vow “not to give in”.

Many non-government organisations working on AIDS awareness and prevention provide sufficient proof to substantiate Rakhi and Saheli’s fears.

“There is an increased awareness about the disease among sex workers,” says Dr Shilpa Merchant of Public Service International. “But all sex workers will have to insist on asking their customers to use a condom. Many don’t press too hard because they fear they have to revert to crushing poverty.”

Shabanabai, a sex worker based in Kamatipura who now participates in awareness campaigns, estimates about 70-75 per cent of prostitutes now use condoms. “But I, too, come across customers who refuse to use condoms,” she says.

While there are complex sexual and economic reasons behind why HIV continues to spread, the statistics are staggering. Mumbai has been declared the city with the largest number of HIV positive cases in India. A health department report says around 3,000 full-blown AIDS cases have been detected in the city out of the 14,351 cases in the rest of Maharashtra.

There are a total 1.16 lakh HIV cases in the state.

Of the estimated 60,000 casual sex workers in Mumbai, government surveys say those who are HIV positive could be account for as much as 30-35 per cent. NGOs put the figure at 50 per cent.

There are about 10,000 AIDS related deaths a year in Mumbai alone, says Dr I.S. Gilada of Public Health Organisation, an NGO. This translates to 800 deaths per month.

But even as NGOs and the government vie with each other to provide an answer to the AIDS question, Rakhi says she already “knows” where the problem lies.

“It is our society,” she says. “Men know they can do anything and get away with it. Even AIDS.”

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