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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
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.
Reported and Produced by
Associate Producer/Assistant Editor
ASSOCIATED PRODUCTION MUSIC LLC
SOROS DOCUMENTARY FUND
NEW YORK STATE COUNCIL ON THE ARTS
A Little Rain Productions for FRONTLINE/World
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