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India's dangerous secret sex lives

By Linda Pressly
BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents

More people are living with HIV in India than anywhere else but activists in Gujarat say that until sexual diversity is accepted, prevention may be impossible.

A woman riding side saddle on the back of her husband's moped
In India's conservative society sex lives are kept very secret

"Just as other people live their lives, my husband and I maintain our normal family life, even though he has boyfriends."

Gita was relating some of the most intimate details of her marriage.

"We look after each other, so that's why I don't have a problem with his homosexuality," she said.

"At first I was shocked because I didn't know anything about it. But I discovered that homosexuality is completely natural in some people, so I'm OK with it.

"I never thought it would create any problems for me."

Gita's husband Vijay, has been having sexual relationships with men ever since they got married.

It's better for me that he has relationships with men not women

At first Vijay kept his sexuality a secret from his wife, but then Gita caught him kissing a man, so the couple were forced to confront the issue.

Now she says Vijay's boyfriends pose no threat to her.

"It's better for me that he has relationships with men not women," she said.

"You hear so much about broken homes, I'd be afraid that he might leave me and the family if he was seeing another woman."

We met Gita and Vijay in the Gujarati city of Vadodara.

It is a grubby, industrial place - a far cry from metropolitan areas like Mumbai where you might find a more identifiable gay "scene".

And Gita and Vijay are an ordinary working class couple who live in a small, concrete house with little furniture.

The gay prince

Vadodara is also home to the Lakshya Trust, a non-governmental organisation dedicated to preventing the spread of HIV/AIDs among men who have sex with men - or MSM as they are known.

Manvendra Singh Gohil, the Prince of Rajpipla
Manvendra was shunned by his family and local community

And it was one of the founders of the trust, Manvendra Singh Gohil, who introduced us to Gita and Vijay.

Manvendra is the son of the Maharajah of Rajpipla.

Manvendra caused a sensation across India last year when he very publicly declared his homosexuality in a Gujarati newspaper.

Now he describes himself as a gay activist.

"We estimate that 75% of the MSM we have contact with at the Lakshya Trust are married," he said.

"That's why we had to start targeting wives for HIV prevention."

India has the largest HIV case-load in the world with an estimated 5.7 million people living with the virus.

And women are most at risk from contracting the virus from their husbands.

But Gita is confident she and Vijay will stay healthy.

"I am concerned about the spread of HIV," she told us, "but if my husband uses protection - like condoms - with his boyfriend, it won't affect me."

Gita and Vijay have learned about safe sex from their contact with the outreach workers at the Lakshya Trust.

Unspoken issues

As well as the men who distribute condoms in well-known gay cruising areas, the trust also employs women, like Hansa, to take the HIV prevention message to women at home.

Hansa, an outreach worker
It can be very difficult for women to convince their husbands to use condoms
Hansa, outreach worker

This is ground-breaking work for an Indian NGO.

Hansa showed us around a poor residential area of Vadodara, close to one of the city's industrial areas.

Makehpura has a mix of Hindu and Muslim families, and it is where she works.

"I start talking to women in private, because these kinds of things are not spoken about in our conservative society," she said.

"I tell them about the kind of work I do, and slowly start talking about sexually transmitted infections and HIV.

"It can be very difficult for women to convince their husbands to use condoms, but I keep a store of them here in the community, so women have easy access to them."

On our tour of Makehpura, Hansa was greeted and welcomed. She is obviously well trusted.

In this tightly packed community of slum housing and small makeshift shops, Hansa has made contact with around 300 women.

She estimates that perhaps 250 of them are the wives of men who have sex with men.

It is a recognition of this immense sexual diversity that many activists believe is critical in the fight against HIV/AIDs in India.

BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents was broadcast on Thursday, 19 April at 1104 BST.

The programme will be repeated on Monday, 23 April 2007

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Country profile: India
09 Jan 07 |  Country profiles

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