Sex workers are the most unfortunate victims of AIDS. HIV/AIDS intervention projects among sex workers have demonstrated clearly that only a modicum of education about the disease is necessary for them to realize their very high risk of being infected with the virus and to motivate them to avoid the infection as far as possible.
In order to earn their livelihood, sex workers (most commonly, female) have to submit to sexual intercourse with their clients (most commonly, male). The only effective way of preventing HIV transmission from an infected person to another during sexual relations is the proper use of condoms. But several surveys in India and elsewhere have shown that many clients, even when aware of the high risk in unprotected sexual intercourse, are reluctant to use condoms for alleged loss of pleasure.
Although motivated to use condoms, the vast majority of sex workers are too poor and powerless to turn their clients down if the latter refuse to use condoms. Only those sex workers who have mobilized themselves under some form of association of their own have the courage and power to negotiate effectively with their clients on this and other matters.
The Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee is such an association with a membership of about 60,000 sex workers in West Bengal. The promotion of sexual health and HIV/AIDS prevention among sex workers was the original context within which DMSC emerged but its long-term objective is to bring about radical changes in the institutional structures that underpin unequal distribution of power and reinforce social exclusion of sex workers in various spheres of life.
The STD/HIV intervention project among the sex workers in the Sonagachi red-light area of Calcutta has been extremely success in increasing the use of condoms among sex workers and thereby controlling the spread of sexually transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS. This success can be attributed primarily to the active participation of many sex workers as peer educators and other functionaries of the project as well as to their united struggle against odds for their basic rights.
Unfortunately, recent incidents of assault by some hooligans on a few sex workers in the Tollygunge area have been a serious setback in the sex workers’ progress towards self-determination, including their power of negotiation with their clients. The local clinic set up by DMSC had to be shut because of the opposition from the hooligans.
How to restore faith
The victims of the assault on October 6 included the current president of DMSC who had to be hospitalized for three days for serious injuries. The immediate reason for the attack on her was that she protested against the inhuman torture of another sex worker in the neighbourhood by her husband and helped her lodge a complaint against the husband in the local police station. But the deeper motivation for the attack came from the long-standing grudge of the hooligans against her because she, as president of DMSC, was a threat to their exploitation of sex workers through regular extortions from them and various other rackets.
DMSC started a campaign immediately after the assault, demanding adequate punishment of the miscreants. But satisfactory actions have not been taken so far. Only two of the criminals (allegedly not the kingpins) have been arrested. Sex workers in the area are in constant threat of a further assault on them.
The closure of the clinic is likely to result in an increase in the incidence of STDs and HIV/AIDS among sex workers in the locality. Until the authorities take proper action to punish all the culprits and restore a sense of security among sex workers in the area, their morale cannot be lifted. This will impede their struggle against the many exploitations they face, including those of a sexual kind. After all, such sexual exploitation is responsible for the high incidence of HIV/AIDS among sex workers.