In Sonagachi, keeping HIV away a daily battle

Fifty-year-old Sumita (name changed) has spent twenty years of her life as a sex worker in the red-light district of Sonagachi near Kolkata. Like thousands in Sonagachi, she struggles every day to keep the deadly virus of AIDS at bay.

While Sumita comes to the narrow alleys that house hundreds of multi-stories brothels every evening looking for her clients, many others have made Sonagachi their home.

"I was forced to take up this profession after my husband got paralysed and his pension money went to his second wife. I shifted to Behala with my son and want my son to study," she said. "He is studying in Class XII and does not know that I work here. For years, we did not know about HIV/AIDS. But now I do and I force my customers to wear a condom. But sometimes it gets difficult when clients try to act smart," Sumita added.

Nearly 5.17 per cent of 13,000 sex workers in Sonagachi are HIV positive and living in dark about their future. Experts claim that despite the initial success of the Buladi campaign launched by the state government, the effort has slowly fizzled out and failed to make any impact in Bengal's rural areas.

"In 1992, 2.7 per cent sex workers were HIV positive, today it is almost 6 per cent. However, it is still lower than in other Indian red-light districts," said Bharati Deb, project director of Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC) — a platform for sex workers working on projects and running sex workers' cooperative to empower them.

According to the committee, nearly 11 per cent sex workers in Sonagachi are out of the purview of safe sex till date. "Sometimes sex workers, who are old, are refused by clients to use protection and since they get less customers they succumb to it. Even women who drink a lot refuse to understand the issue of HIV," said Deb.

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