Role of sex workers in HIV prevention ignored: Author

Photo for representation.

India’s HIV prevalence is 0.2%, a little less than that of the United States, but sex workers who played a major role in preventing the spread of the disease have not been given credit, said Ashok Alexander, who played a key role in HIV prevention during his days with Avahan, an NGO.

Speaking at a discussion on his book, ‘A Stranger Truth: Lessons in Love, Leadership and Courage from India’s Sex Workers’ at the Bangalore Literature Festival here, Alexander said the experience of the HIV prevention programme helped him realise that women who come together as a community at the bottom of the pyramid can solve the most complex of problems.

He said the sex workers showed tremendous leadership once they received the support, recognition and compassion they deserve.

“For me, true compassion started with trying to understand what sex workers go through instead of telling them what to do.

Then, I realised that each of their sexual transaction was almost always an incident of violence. The sex worker would be beaten up or burnt if she insisted that the client wear a condom,” he said.

Moderator Vijayendra Rao pointed out that the role of Avahan was crucial in the late 90s when the then Union health secretary had said the country will not face HIV problems because Indians are morally upright. 

Alexander responded by stating that the power of the community played a major role.

“They realised that the violence by clients could be stopped only when 10 or 12 sex workers came together and demanded the police register a case. Soon, word got around that this was as much a violence prevention drive as it was an HIV prevention drive, and the community stood behind the programme,” he said.

Responding to a question from the audience, he said there has been a mistake in recent years in the priorities being shifted from the treatment of HIV rather than prevention.

“Working with the high-risk group has got to be the starting point,” he added.

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