Cellphones reshape prostitution in India, complicate efforts to prevent AIDS

Published: November 25, 2012

MUMBAI: Millions once bought sex in the narrow alleys of Kamathipura, a vast red-light district here. However, sex workers with inexpensive mobile phones are luring customers elsewhere, and that is endangering the astonishing progress India has made against AIDS.

Indeed, the recent closings of hundreds of ancient brothels, while something of an economic victory for sex workers, may one day cost them, and many others, their lives.
"The place where sex happens turns out to be an important HIV prevention point," said Saggurti Niranjan, programme associate of the Population Council. "And when we don’t know where that is, we can’t help stop the transmission."

Cellphones, those tiny gateways to modernity, have recently allowed sex workers to shed the shackles of brothel madams and strike out on their own. However, that independence has made sex workers far harder for government and safe-sex counselors to trace. And without the advice and free condoms those counselors provide, sex workers and their customers are returning to dangerous ways.

Studies show that sex workers who rely on cellphones are more susceptible to HIV because they are far less likely than their brothel-based peers to require their clients to wear condoms.

In interviews, sex workers said they had surrendered some control in the bedroom in exchange for far more control over their incomes.

"Now, I get the full cash in my hand before we start," said Neelan, a sex worker with four children whose side business in sex work is unknown to her husband and neighbors. (Neelan is a professional name, not her real one.)

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