USAID-funded AIDS Prevention and Control Project at VHS completes study

In a first of its kind, a study in Tamil Nadu is attempting to count the hidden population of sex workers who do not come through the conventional commercial sex route.

The USAID-funded AIDS Prevention and Control Project at VHS has just completed ‘Reaching the unreached: An exploratory study of Hidden and Difficult to reach Sex Workers in Tamil Nadu,' which attempted to get a handle on the high-end sex workers and their clientele.

Project Director of APAC Bimal Charles says: “We always believed there are more groups involved, apart from the usual commercial sex workers who have been covered by intervention programmes.”

“Our intention is to bring them also into the education process. Sometimes, they could be high-paying clients or people who do sexual favours for a high price, but if they don't follow safety measures, we will be losing the benefits of our AIDS control programmes,” says Dr. Charles. With extensive research via social networking sites, through chats and mobile phone conversations, and ads for ‘friendship' and ‘massages' in newspapers, they zoned in on people from a wide-ranging set of professions — side artists in films, masseurs, male call boys, escorts, business people, bar girls/dancers, housewives and unemployed persons involved in paid sex on a part-time basis.

“With a sample size of 600, picked up from Chennai, Coimbatore and Kanyakumari, it is obvious we have still not managed to get the absolute numbers,” Dr. Charles says.

Pratheeba J., and Christina T. Dorthy, APAC staff who worked on the study, explain that getting information was difficult, simply because of the multiple modes of communication used and the unwillingness of the high-end, part-time sex worker to talk about their secret activities.

The study also investigated the number of partners, whether physical harassment is meted out, and in some instances, also the risk perception among clients.

While knowledge of the sexual route of transmission is high among all groups surveyed, knowledge of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) is still poor.

“While hatching intervention strategies for them, the typical peer education model may or may not work,” Dr. Charles says.

“We might need other strategies and models that will be acceptable to them; perhaps use technology as an aid. If the pilot programme we are all set to launch soon works, then we can get a handle on the issue and scale up across the country.”