Is Rs.1000 per hour worth the risk of AIDS?

Zooni*, a 20-year-old resident of Yeshwantpur and a sex worker "by chance and not by choice," as she puts it, is a typical example of a woman who was driven into the sex trade as a result of being caught in a bad marriage.

Public pledge to end AIDS, displayed at Bhoruka Charitable Trust’s testing centre. BCT is an NGO funded by KSAPS.
Pic: Deepa Ranganathan.

Married at the age of 17, Zooni was impregnated by her husband, whom she describes as "a drunkard," months after their marriage. He abandoned her last year, but has continued to demand sex and impregnated her again five months ago. Poverty forced her into this profession. Her 18-month-old old son, who hardly knows what his father looks like, is the only hope left in her life, she says.

She pulls her veil back to reveal her left ear, which is stitched at the top-a mark left a few days ago, when her husband assaulted her. A victim of a marriage gone wrong, Zooni is a pregnant mother with no money to have an abortion or raise another child.

And with sex work, she is invariably exposed to all the dangers of the job-the risk of being infected with HIV being the biggest one. If there is one thing she can be thankful for, it is the fact that she did not test positive when she took the HIV test four months ago. But this relief may be short-lived as there is uncertainty attached to the result of the report. She is in a job that can infect her with the deadly virus anytime.

4500 HIV cases in Bangalore’s high-risk group 

Official statistics of AIDS infections for Bangalore urban and rural district is available with Karnataka State AIDS Prevention Society (KSAPS). KSAPS is a state government cell to prevent AIDS, funded by the central government.  2010 data shows that of the 1,13,088 people tested for HIV, 4 percent have tested positive. And of the 75026 pregnant women tested, 299 of them are positive.

Yeshwanthpur, where Zooni is from, 29 of the 1,127 people tested, are HIV positive. Though there is no record of whether all of them were sex workers, there is a high-risk among 25-34 age group and Zooni belongs to it.

"Given the very nature of their job, sex workers are the most vulnerable lot of the high-risk population. And since their entire economy depends on sexual activity with multiple partners, the aim of spreading AIDS awareness becomes all the more necessary and challenging," said Dr. Vijay Inamdar, a consultant for HIV and TB, KSAPS.

Areas where BCT works on AIDS prevention and detection. Pic: Deepa Ranganathan.

Bhoruka Charitable Trust (BCT), a Bangalore based NGO, supported and funded by KSAPS launched its Female Sex Workers HIV-testing program in 2005, when an estimated 4,400 sex workers were identified for the project. For the current year, the target is to test 2,729 sex workers. A BCT report says 26 women, who are all members of the Karnataka Sex Workers’ Union, tested positive out of 1,195 tested in Integrated and Counseling Testing Centers between May 2009 and August 2010.

Deepa Vasanthkumar, program officer and counselor at BCT, said: "Even if a sex worker has tested negative for HIV, it certainly does not rule out the possibility of their acquiring it in the near future, given that the nature of their work invariably involves multiple partners. We try and educate them about safe sex practices and distribute free condoms, asking them to insist their clients to use the same."

BCT says that sex workers, truck drivers and migrant workers from the lower income group are highly susceptible to the HIV infection. 

‘It’s all about the money’

Sometimes clients lure sex workers into unsafe sex practices by offering them more money in exchange for not wearing a condom during the intercourse-an act that puts them doubly at risk.

"What do you do in such a scenario? You’re getting more money at the cost of your life. It becomes a matter of priority then. Often, money wins over almost everything," Zooni says. But she says she has not yet faced this problem with her clients.

"I tell them about HIV, how it can spread to both the partners, and brief them about its fatal consequences. That usually scares them into wearing a condom," she says.

Zooni, too, might get infected someday, given the risk factor involved in her profession, but she says she fears some things more than AIDS. If she doesn’t work, her child goes hungry.

"I don’t wish to do this work," Zooni says. "But who will support my fatherless child? Which other job can fetch me 1,000 bucks in an hour? And that, too, isn’t enough. It’s all about the money." ⊕

*Name changed to protect the individual’s identity.

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