“Festival of Love” Aims to Reduce HIV Risk Among Sex Workers

Article Date

24 November 2009

Article Author

By Gillian Gaynair

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

After participating in an International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) and CARE India project, sex workers in India’s East Godavari district reported that they had less sex against their will. More of them used condoms. Some enrolled in school to finish their education. And all pledged to delay their daughters’ marriages and first sexual encounters.

Those were among the results of the three-year project that were shared during a recent “Insight to Action” presentation in Washington, D.C., by Annie George, group director of health and development for ICRW’s regional office in Hyderabad, India; and Suman Bisht, manager of gender equity and diversity for CARE India in New Delhi.

Supported by MAC AIDS Fund, the program, called “Festival of Love,” aimed to reduce sex workers’ risk of HIV exposure by using harm reduction principals and a community empowerment framework.

The project largely was designed around activities that encouraged sex workers to share their experiences and focus on their rightful choices as women – instead of looking at their lives solely through the prism of their occupation.

Festival of Love ultimately reached about 1,700 sex workers who were on average 35 years old, from a low caste and mostly illiterate. They practiced their livelihoods on the streets and highways, in brothels and from home in East Godavari, where 25 percent of female sex workers were HIV positive in 2006. Nationally, less than 1 percent of Indians carry the virus.

ICRW and CARE India found that sex workers in East Godavari were more vulnerable to HIV because of their low social status as well as gender inequalities and social norms that exist in everyday society.

But when given the opportunity to reflect together on their lives and recognize the inequities they face – all while learning how to save money and protect themselves from harm – many sex workers were motivated to make changes in their lives.

Gillian Gaynair is ICRW’s writer/editor.