New Delhi: A growing number of sex workers in the country are stepping beyond the immures of brothels and using mobile phones and Internet to solicit clients, posing a hurdle to health workers who find it difficult to identify this "invisible group" for HIV prevention programmes.
This came to light in a recent study by NGO Population Council which claimed that a number of factors, including a decrease in the number of people visiting brothels and the stigma attached to these areas, are increasingly driving sex workers to resort to new-age technology to contact potential clients.
"HIV intervention has taken a beating due to this emerging trend with health workers grappling to identify this `invisible` group that mostly contacts clients using phones and Internet and draw them to lodges," says Niranjan Saggurti, a researcher in Population Council, who was part of the study.
HIV prevention programmes currently focus on sex workers who solicit clients from brothels, streets and highways.
The study is based on interaction with 5,498 sex workers in four states -- Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh - and was done to understand how they are soliciting clients.
A senior National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO) official admitted the trend was impeding HIV prevention programmes and said an innovative measure must be drawn to identify these sex workers and spread awareness.
"We are aware of this problem. But no sex worker works in isolation, they have peer groups and it is this link we are trying to reach out to. It is a huge challenge without doubt. We are working towards it," the official said.
According to the government statistics, there are an estimated 23.9 lakh people living with HIV/AIDS in the country in 2009.
"This trend of sex workers moving away from brothels is
not new, it has been happening over time. But, yes, the number has increased a lot over the last four years," says Rishi Kant of Shakti Vahini, an NGO working with sex workers in the capital`s red-light area GB Road.
"With increasing number of sex workers leaving brothels, trafficking of minor girls has peaked," he says.
In the context of the study, Saggurti explains that lodges could provide an entry point for programme services to promote safe sex.
"Such a strategy to universalise condom availability in lodges as is being done in Thailand would be useful in further containing the transmission of HIV in India.
"We will take up the issue with the government and ask them to take immediate steps to identify these sex workers and ensure that HIV target programmes reach them," Saggurti says.