India: The Sex Workers

This video and report are from 2004. Coming soon will be an update to this topic. –Kathy

FRONTLINE/World . Video | PBS



In the heart of Mumbai, India [also known as Bombay] lies Kamathipura, one of the country’s poorest districts and also its largest red light district, home to more than 60,000 sex workers. In the spring of 2004, FRONTLINE/World correspondent Raney Aronson traveled to Kamathipura to investigate what has quickly become the center of the AIDS epidemic in India, which affects more than four and a half million people.

On the streets of Kamathipura, it’s no challenge for Aronson to find sex workers to talk with. In a small gathering she asks them frankly about the core issues of their trade — economics and health. The women get the equivalent of US$1.50 for sex, $2 on a good night, less than a dollar on a bad night. To have sex without a condom, men will often pay more or, after a few visits, tell the women they love them. The women in the group laugh a bit about the men’s proclamations of love, but there’s a tragic fact behind their laughter: more than half of the sex workers here are HIV positive.

For the pimps and brothel owners of Mumbai, the sex industry is a multi-million dollar business in which money, not health, is the bottom line. The highest prices go for the youngest girls, many of whom have been kidnapped from other countries and trafficked to India, or sold by their own families into the industry.

Aronson travels to the Sanlaap Shelter, where she meets a group of girls who have been rescued from prostitution. The girls tell their stories — fathers and uncles who sold them, madams who held them hostage. None of them was told about the dangers of HIV. They found out only upon arriving at the shelter, and now it’s too late. Many of them are already HIV positive.

Aronson meets Anju Pawar, a social worker with the ASHA project, dedicated to educating women about AIDS. ASHA is made up of sex workers who go into the brothels as peer educators to talk to the women about safe sex. The work is frequently frustrating. Anju says that the brothel keepers often keep new girls from peer educators for their first few months.

Soliciting for sex is illegal in India, but as Aronson surveys Kamathipura, she sees that the police are often part of the problem. Prostitutes tell Aronson that when arrested, they’re forced to either have sex or pay bribes for their release. And the youngest girls are the most vulnerable.

Not surprisingly, Mumbai’s AIDS rate has soared in recent years. Aronson visits one of Mumbai’s largest public hospitals, one of the few in India that doesn’t turn away AIDS patients. There she finds a man who is well into his sickness. This man is a migrant worker who’s come to Mumbai to make money, contracted AIDS from a sex worker and has likely taken it back to his home community. The man is married, but his wife is far away, at home. The doctors have no way of contacting or treating the wife. Health experts estimate that one-fifth of all AIDS cases in India are married women who have been infected by their husbands.

More than a thousand miles east of Mumbai, along the banks of the Ganges, India’s holiest river, things are different in the city of Kolkata [Calcutta]. Notoriously poor and overpopulated, Kolkata would seem especially vulnerable to infectious diseases, but the red light district there has the lowest AIDS rate of any in the country.

This is due to the efforts of people like Putul Singh, who was sold into prostitution by her husband eight years ago at the age of 20. She now works full-time for the Sonagachi Project, the model AIDS prevention group in the country. As Aronson follows Putul on her rounds through Kolkata talking to sex workers, Putul talks about Sonagachi’s strategy for combating AIDS. Offering basic health care, she says, is the best way to open the discussion about safe sex.

When Putul talks to women she is extremely frank about requiring men to use condoms. As she tells one woman, “[You] must say ‘Look – you have a family at home and so do I. If we don’t use a condom our families will be ruined.’ You have to look at the big picture.”

The Sonagachi Project works with men as well as women to explain the necessity of condoms. Aronson attends a meeting of some of the area’s pimps and regular clients, locally called babus. Listening to Putul’s arguments with one man, who insists that he is disease-free and at the same time refuses to accept that condoms will do anything for him, it’s clear she faces an uphill battle.

Another group meeting, of the sex workers’ union in Kolkata, is more encouraging. Even though prostitution is also illegal in Kolkata, the union is recognized by the state of West Bengal, which has been run by a communist government for 25 years. Union president Rama Debnath explains to union members that when they’re confronted by the police, they need to stand up to them and have courage. “What’s your rank? Where’s the charge?” she tells them to ask.

It turns out that the combination of the sex workers’ union and the Sonagachi Project is making a difference. Condom use has soared in Kolkata, from an estimated three percent to 90 percent. Kolkata’s AIDS rate is one fifth that of Mumbai’s.

But even in Kolkata, a monumental challenge still remains: reaching the thousands of young girls sold into the sex trade. Rama says one way to do it is to legalize prostitution, so there would be regulations. “In the same way other industries don’t employ children,” she says, “This industry wouldn’t employ children either.”

Aronson asks the girls back at the Sanlaap Shelter if they’ve heard of the sex workers’ union. “Nobody came to talk to us,” one girl says. “The only people who came were the police to raid the brothels.”

Although haunted by their memories, the Sanlaap girls are at least now far from the red-light districts from which they were rescued. Most of their families won’t take them back after they’ve worked as prostitutes, but Sanlaap attempts to give them hope for some sort of a future. But these girls are the fortunate ones. Thousands of other young girls are left behind. And what happens to them in many ways will determine the future of AIDS in India.

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