Gujarat, the western Indian state is ruled by Hindu zealots. But they seem to have had the sense to take precautions against HIV/AIDS by encouraging distribution of condoms at vulnerable points. The move is paying dividends, officials say.
Particularly making available condoms at theatres screening porn films in Surat has succeeded in spreading awareness of the epidemic among vulnerable groups. The city has a large number of migrant laborers who come to the city to work in its diamond and textile factories.
Gujarat is not a high HIV/Aids prevalence state, but in its 2004 estimates, India's National Aids Control Organization (NACO) said there had been a significant increase in the number of cases being reported in the state. Snehlata Bhatia, project manager of the program at Surat Municipal Corporation, said the state could be described as a "middle prevalence" state.
Since they decided to target audiences at theatres showing pornographic films, the results had been more than encouraging, she said. "In our attempts to spread HIV/Aids awareness, we study where our target groups live, the places they visit," Mrs Bhatia told BBC News. "We are already working with the diamond industry and the builder's association and when we realised that a lot of migrant labourers were coming to these cinemas to watch porn films, we got in touch with these cinemas."
According to Dinesh Prajapati, a member of the Sargam Manav Seva Charitable Trust, an NGO working on the project, many migrant workers who visit these theatres often pick up prostitutes hanging around the cinemas and take them inside the hall or to a cheap guest house afterwards. "Here, we are reaching out to two major high-risk groups and we don't only provide them with condoms to promote safe sex, but also give them information about HIV/Aids and other sexually-transmitted diseases," he said.
The condoms are either handed out by volunteers and NGO workers or sold at the ticket counter. In some theatres, messages regarding safe sex are printed on the back of the tickets and short films on the subject are screened before the shows. To make condoms easily available at any time of day, social workers have also roped in small shops selling tobacco products outside the cinemas.
The move has paid off. Mr Prajapati said: "People now don't hesitate to buy condoms from the ticket counter or the tobacco shop.
"Many times they come and talk to our social workers about sexually-transmitted diseases, seek advice on treatment and where to get it and now some of them even attend our group meetings." Another NGO involved in the project, the Shri Ramkrishna Charitable Trust, has taken it one step further and made condoms available at some barber shops as well.
Campaigners see buying condoms freely as a great step forward in a society which still regards sex as a taboo subject to be dealt with behind closed doors only. In fact, two months ago, the neighbouring state of Maharashtra banned sex education in schools after some legislators protested it would corrupt young minds. But as this experiment in Gujarat shows, with authorities trying out new ways and methods of spreading the message to the masses, more people seem to be listening.