Indian strategists who were fighting AIDS had thought that they had found the way to stop the disease. By focusing on the high risk population.
An example of the strategies that had been working can be found in Delhi’s red-light district on Garstin Bastion Road near the old Delhi railway station, where brothels have thrived since the 16th century. A walk through dark alleys, past blind beggars and up narrow, steep and deeply worn stone staircases brings customers into brightly lighted rooms teeming with scores of women brushing each other’s hair, trying on new dresses, eating snacks, performing the latest Bollywood dances, tending small children and disappearing into tiny bedrooms with nervous men who come out moments later buttoning their trousers.
A 2009 government survey found 2,000 prostitutes at Garstin Bastion (also known as G. B.) Road who served about 8,000 men a day. The government estimated that if it could deliver as many as 320,000 free condoms each month and train dozens of prostitutes to counsel safe-sex practices to their peers, AIDS infections could be significantly reduced. Instead of broadcasting safe-sex messages across the country — an expensive and inefficient strategy commonly employed in much of the world — it encircled Garstin Bastion with a firebreak of posters with messages like “Don’t take a risk, use a condom” and “When a condom is in, risk is out.”
Surprising many international AIDS experts, these and related tactics worked. Studies showed that condom use among clients of prostitutes soared.
But then came a revolution in the sex work field in India. The cell phones.
[pull_quote align=’right’] Did you know that G.B. Road in Delhi is really Garstin Bastion Road? [/pull_quote] There is a shift in prostitution in India in that the distribution of sex workers has become decentralized. Earlier, the prostitution happened in one area. So, it was easy to contain the HIV spread. Now, the sex workers – more and more middle class entering the field – have started fixing the clients via mobiles. And, in exchange for the institutional safety and support that brothels provided, today’s sex workers are instead going for more cash and “individualized rules”.
In interviews, prostitutes said they had surrendered some control in the bedroom in exchange for far more control over their incomes.
“Now, I get the full cash in my hand before we start,” said Neelan, a prostitute with four children whose side business in sex work is unknown to her husband and neighbors. (Neelan is a professional name, not her real one.)
“Earlier, if the customer got scared and didn’t go all the way, the madam might not charge the full amount,” she explained. “But if they back out now, I say that I have removed all my clothes and am going to keep the money.”
This is bad news for the NGOs and Government that are fighting AIDS, something that they have done an exceptional job in containing when Africa has exploded due to lack of focused work.
The agencies are very perplexed as to how to deal with the new situation.