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Freeing the brothels from terror is merely a side effect of the Sonagachi project, an HIV intervention program named after the red-light district of Kolkata formerly Calcutta where it began.
Rural poverty forces millions of Indian men to migrate to urban centers in search of a livelihood; there they visit brothels, pick up the AIDS virus and take it back to their wives. Truck drivers also infect prostitutes along the major highways. India already harbors at least five million cases of HIV--the most in the world after South Africa--but it is too poor, and its health infrastructure too weak, to permit reliance on drugs. Only if prostitutes cease to acquire and transmit the virus can the epidemic be contained, and Smarajit Jana, a public health scientist, has found a way to accomplish that.
They have: the sex workers run the HIV program themselves. Jana persuaded them to form a growing collective that now includes 60, members pledged to condom use. It offers bank loans, schooling for children, literacy training for adults, reproductive health care and cheap condoms--and has virtually eliminated trafficking of women in the locale. Best of all, the project has kept the HIV prevalence rate among prostitutes in Sonagachi down to 5 percent, whereas in the brothels of Mumbai Bombay it is around Other sexually transmitted diseases are down to 1 percent.
An unassuming man with flyaway hair and a ready smile, Jana, who is now 53, went through medical school in Kolkata in the s. There he organized students to collect leftover medicines and visit slums to treat the inhabitants. Medical school in India is highly subsidized, so "we felt very strongly that we were morally responsible" to give something back, Jana recalls. They campaigned and litigated against hazardous medical products, getting two dozen of them recalled.
When, instead of aiming for a lucrative private practice, Jana specialized in public health and went off to run a rural clinic, his parents were horrified. At the clinic, Jana observed that if a woman had undergone a tubectomy, for which she had received money from a population-control program, she invariably blamed any subsequent health problems on it.