About 500 disorganised sex workers in Mysore and Mandya districts of Karnataka are now armed with smart cards that not only prompt them to get regular health check ups to keep track of their STI (sexually transmitted infections) status but also get discounts on their daily purchases - from grocery to perfumes.
This pilot project began in July in the two districts at the initiative of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in association with the University of Manitoba, Canada. It can be replicated in the rest of India if proved successful, Sushena Reza-Paul, assistant professor at the university, told IANS from Mysore.
"When we started the STI prevention programme and issued health cards to the majority of illiterate women here, who are not brothel-based like Kolkata's Sonagachi red light area, we found that follow-up is a big problem. They come from villages and go back and there are several girls of the same name," said Reza-Paul, who is also an advisor to Ashodaya Mahila Samannaya Samity, a sex workers' organisation.
Reza-Paul said that these sex workers were initially given ID numbers, which they did not remember. Following this, they were issued health cards, but they did not attach much value to it.
"It was then that we thought of using IT solutions to get them interested in periodic health check ups for HIV/AIDS prevention by issuing cards that would also entitle them to get discounts on daily purchases. The economic benefit of the card will prompt them to get periodic health check ups, failing which the card cannot be renewed," said Reza-Paul.
"We contacted their preferred vendors from whom they buy their daily grocery, sari, refreshments, and make-up. Then we sat with a software company and we merged the health card with a smart card," added Reza-Paul.
"Now the sex workers would be interested in renewing their cards every three months while keeping track of their expense patterns. The health record and status of any sex worker under the project will also be available at the click of a mouse in computers which have smart card terminals."
Mrinal Kanti Dutta, the former Sonagachi HIV/AIDS prevention project head, said the smart card approach could be a powerful weapon to fight infections among sex workers across the country.
"We are planning to write to Union Finance Minister P. Chidambaram so that sex workers holding smart cards are given preferential treatment like senior citizens (who get one percent more interest) in various government saving schemes," said Dutta, who is now assisting sex workers of Karnataka to replicate the Sonagachi model.
Sonagachi's HIV/AIDS prevention project has been selected as the role model for a $200 million programme of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in six Indian states, including Karnataka.
"We want the sex workers to ultimately use the smart card like an ATM card to deposit their earnings in the bank and produce it before the police like an identity card to avoid harassment. The multi-sectoral approach will help us prevent STI," said Reza-Paul, admitting that the scheme is not without its teething problems.
National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO) director general Sujata Rao too has shown interest in the project.