Clients give lessons on AIDS in India's brothels


KOLKATA, India (Reuters) - Activists in eastern India battling to curb  HIV/AIDS infections in one of Asia's biggest red light districts have recruited an unusual group of people to help fight the deadly virus -- the customers of prostitutes.

Kolkata's notorious red light area, Sonagachhi, is home to about 10,000 prostitutes, who live in brothels lining the narrow lanes in the north of the city, catering for the needs of more than 25,000 clients every day.

While most customers are either unaware of AIDS or not interested in safe sex, anti-AIDS activists say they have enlisted almost 200 regular clients to Sonagachhi to teach fellow visitors about using condoms and having frequent blood tests.

"We spend so much time in Sonagachhi that we thought that it was also our duty to protect these girls from AIDS," said Deepak Bhattacharya, a businessman and frequent visitor to brothel.

"There are also thousands of men who come to Sonagachhi and refuse to wear a condom," said Bhattacharya. "And that is where we step in."

India has the world's highest national HIV/AIDS caseload with 5.7 million infected people.

Although the country reported its first case over 20 years ago, many sufferers still face acute stigma fueled by a lack of awareness and misconceptions about the disease.

Every evening, Bhattacharya and his other colleagues scout the brothels for fellow customers and sex workers, talk to them about safe sex practices and encourage them to get involved in the HIV/AIDS awareness campaign in the area.

Bhattacharya says while some clients are not interested to be counseled on HIV/AIDS prevention -- particularly in such personal circumstances -- there are some men who are more open and even take away leaflets.

The project run by Darbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC) -- an umbrella group representing around 65,000 sex workers -- took off at the beginning of 2006 and has so far counseled around 5,000 clients and prostitutes.

"About 80 percent of clients and sex workers counseled now use condoms," said Bharati Dey, DMSC's project director and a former prostitute.

But activists say there is still a lot of work to do and estimate that about 90 percent of the men who visit Sonagachhi do not know that AIDS can be contracted through sexual intercourse.

The World Health Organization says infection rates amongst Sonagachhi's prostitutes have dropped to five percent from 90 percent over the last decade thanks to community-based HIV/AIDS prevention projects. But the infection rate could go up if clients do not take the same precautions.

"This move is working very well and is the need of the hour as AIDS has definitely increased in India," said Prabhakar Chatterjee, a senior WHO representative.