A group of Pakistani prostitutes has been picking up tips in safe sex and “brothel management” in one of India’s biggest red light districts in Calcutta, health activists said.
Indian prostitutes have been showing their Pakistani peers around the crowded, dirty Sonagachi district - where around 6,000 sex workers ply their trade - and been telling them about an HIV/AIDS intervention programme run by prostitutes.
“They inquired from us about our anti-AIDS programme and our brothel management technique,” said Mrinal Dutta, health activist and spokeswoman of the Sonagachi prostitutes’ group called DMSC.
Sonagachi’s HIV/AIDS control programme has brought infection rates down to around five percent from around 90 percent a decade ago, partly by encouraging prostitutes to refuse sex without condoms.
The programme’s success saw the U.S.-based Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation use it as a model for a $200 million project in six Indian cities.
“We are particularly impressed with DMSC’s self-regulatory body which prevents the entry of minors into sex trade and coercion methods,” said Majid Rani, the leader of the Pakistani prostitutes’ team.
The visitors went around the dingy lanes of Sonagachi and entered several dark, dank one-room brothels to “check out work conditions”.
“We have similar problems in the two countries. So, we tried to learn from each other’s experience and share ideas,” said Swapna Gayen, a former Indian prostitute and now a health worker.
Prostitution is officially banned in India and Pakistan, but remains widespread and authorities often turn a blind eye.
In India the state runs HIV/AIDS campaigns through groups like the DMSC.
About 5.1 million people in India have HIV or AIDS, putting it only just behind South Africa as the world’s worst affected.
India’s health ministry has reported another 28,000 HIV/AIDS cases in 2004 compared with an increase of 520,000 in 2003, a dramatic slowdown in the growth of new infections.
But the country’s science minister later conceded the data could be misleading.
Revision date: July 7, 2011
Last revised: by Sebastian Scheller, MD, ScD