Thirty-five-year-old Laxmi feels much safer now- thanks to female condoms. And she is just one in an army of sex workers who feel the condoms have given them a new meaning in life. "One in every three clients refuses to wear condoms. But after attending health awareness camps, I have understood the threat of AIDS and how it spreads through unprotected sex," Laxmi said.
"In the last few months we have got female condoms at very subsidised rate. When a client refuses to take protection, we go for the female condom for our own safety," Laxmi told IANS. Like Laxmi, there are tens of thousands of women across India for whom there is now an option to stay safe from HIV/AIDS even when their clients refuse to take protection.
Anusha is another commercial sex worker working in and around Hyderabad. She said: "Besides the health benefit, there is a monetary gain as well. Instead of refusing customers, especially those who are drunk, we go for female condoms.
"This practice helps in stabilising our earnings and at the same time keeps us away from HIV/AIDS," she said. Anusha and her fellow workers have even composed a Telugu song to hail the benefit of female condoms, popularly called FCs.
"Like a security guard has a gun, now female sex workers have an FC in their hand for protection," she said, speaking in Hindi mixed with Telugu. To cut down the threat of AIDS, the National Aids Control Organisation (NACO) has distributed female condoms. The effort is paying off in empowering sex workers.
While the market price of a female condom is Rs.47, NACO makes them available to sex workers for just Rs.5. Although the FC was produced in 1992, it came to India in 2003. NACO, Hindustan Latex and several NGOs are now jointly conducting a pre-assessment survey on the acceptance of FCs among sex workers of six states that have a large number of HIV/AIDS cases.
"An assessment survey is going on in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka and West Bengal. We are also assessing the acceptability among the general population of Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan," said Kavita Potturi, national programme manager, Hindustan Latex Family Planning Promotion Trust (HLFPPT).
"The government has rolled out 500,000 FCs for the purpose in these states. And the final result of the assessment will be known by December," Potturi, who is coordinating the drive, told IANS. "Of the six states, all the districts of Andhra Pradesh, six districts each of West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Maharashtra, and two districts of Gujarat have been covered," she said.
India is home to 2.5 million HIV/AIDS patients, of which at least 500,000 are in Andhra Pradesh. Disclosing two findings of the survey, she said: "There is very high acceptance of FCs among the commercial sex workers and the high risk population (vulnerable to AIDS) in this category has dropped from 17 percent earlier to seven percent now in Andhra Pradesh. "It is certainly empowering women. Now they have an option not to succumb to male pressure."
After the ongoing survey, the government plans to extend this process to all districts of Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra. B. Kalidas, additional director of Andhra Pradesh State Aids Control Society (APSACS), said whether it is the male condom or the female condom, the aim is to reduce risk.
"We should prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS and the female condom is a potent tool in this direction. I can see the Andhra experience of female condoms. The high-risk group (sex workers) are really reaping the benefits," Kalidas explained.