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Mobile Technology Threatens India’s Remarkable AIDS Battle Record



Mobile phones have largely changed the way business is done around the world, but they have created an unexpected consequence in India. Kamathipura is a red-light district in Mumbai where millions of people from around the world bought sex in legal brothels. Mobile technology has allowed prostitutes to move their business out of the brothels, and several long-standing establishments have closed down. While this may be an economic boon to working girls in the city because they are no longer beholden to madams, there is a dire consequence that now endangers the ladies and the customers that continue to legally purchase sex.

 The Price of Freedom

As it happens, India has made significant progress against HIV and AIDS by providing counseling and free condoms to prostitutes. Now, armed with their mobiles, the same vendors are engaging in sex acts where the government cannot easily locate them. Many brothels required customers to wear condoms during sessions, but independent prostitutes are more willing to trade the safety of sexual protection for a higher pay-off.

According to one prostitute, who calls herself Neelan during business hours, madams would often not charge full price for services if customers did not leave satisfied. Now, she asks for cash in hand before she ever begins her work, which is a secret she keeps from her family—four children and a husband—and neighbors.

India’s Surprising AIDS Story

India is one of the world’s most incredible AIDS stories. When the virus was introduced to the nation in 1986, there were rampant predictions that the epidemic would quickly claim India as its new focal point. The National Intelligence Council predicted at that time that there would be 25 million cases of the disease in 2002. Today, there are 1.5 million cases across the country.

Part of the reason for India’s success is that the majority of women have fewer sexual partners over the course of their lives than do women in other developing countries. An intensive effort funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and World Bank targeted high-risk populations, such as gay men, users of intravenous drugs, and prostitutes. The Gates Foundation’s support and oversight of India’s AIDS prevention efforts are coming to a close just as prostitutes are finding new liberty through mobile phones. It’s too early to speculate on quickly the disease will spread, experts, agree.

In 2009, a government study surveyed 2,000 prostitutes of Mumbai’s Garstin Bastion Road. They served about 8,000 men every day at the time. The government sought to train dozens of these workers to provide safe-sex counseling and as many as 320,000 condoms each month to their peers, greatly reducing the financial strain of a nation-wide safe-sex campaign. The efforts were supported with posters reminding people to use a condom to negate the risk. The efforts were wildly successful, surprising AIDS experts around the world as prostitutes overwhelmingly opted to use condoms for their work.

India’s model was mimicked in several nations, and each effort produced successful results. But the mobile phone revolution that is dismantling brothels across the city has broadened the marketplace, disconnected peer prostitutes, and lured many new women into offering their services on a part-time basis.