Monday, January 21, 2008

Sex Workers Fight HIV in Bengal

The Sonagachi Project

From Thaindian News:

Kolkata, Bengal: Sex workers of Sonagchi, the largest brothel in India, are working to prevent HIV infection and human trafficking by organizing camps for sex workers of West Bengal and asking them to fight for their rights.

Under the banner of Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DSMC), 65,000 sex workers in West Bengal, India organize to advocate for sex workers rights and discuss major issues such as HIV infection and human trafficking.

West Bengal is the state with the highest number of HIV infected patients (150,000).

Rajeev Shukla, Project Director, West Bengal State AIDS Prevention and Control Society said that Bengal's open borders with Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan are the biggest challenge for HIV infection. Migrants from these countries carry the virus and further spread the disease.

Earlier, police raids were so frequent that the number of clients was very low. Additionally, the fear of losing customers used to stop [sex workers] from demanding condom use. "Police used to think sex workers encourage human trafficking which was an absolutely wrong notion," said Bharati Dey, who has been a sex worker for the last 30 years. "To stop human trafficking in sex trade, a self-regulatory board has been established by the sex workers."

The board works as a filter and checks whether the new girl joining the trade is an adult or a minor. This board also tries to find out if any new girl joining the profession is under any pressure to do so. "This has been very successful way to check human trafficking, police raids have also reduced considerably," said Swapna Gayen, a sex worker in Sonagachi for over two decades. During the seminars, sex workers also discussed new amendments proposed in the existing laws, which they feel would criminalize sex work.

There have already been protests against the new amendments, which criminalize clients of sex workers. Sex workers feel that such amendments would make the entire trade a crime. "The new amendments will force the sex trade underground," said a legal expert Tripti Tandon.

*The last paragraph brings up an interesting point: by cracking down on the demand side of prostitution, does this simply drive the industry underground and thus create more opportunities for trafficking? Or by focusing on demand, does this stymie the profits made by prostitution and trafficking and force the traffickers to move onto other more profitable enterprises (such as drug trafficking)?

As tends to be the case with trafficking, there is no Achilles heel, no single solution that will effectively address the issue on its own. The organizing of sex workers to monitor for trafficking. raise awareness of HIV and advocate for their rights is an innovative and seemingly effective approach for those in the flesh trade to protect themselves. But this needs to be combined with a coordinated effort from all other sectors of society (public, private, civil) to truly make an impact.

My two cents, what do you think?

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