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Tuesday, 19 November, 2002, 16:49 GMT
Indian sex educators tackle Aids
Children playing on the beaches of Madras
Aids awareness aims to give children their lives back

HIV and Aids in India received high-profile coverage during the recent visit by software tycoon, Bill Gates.

But in the southern city of Madras - one of the worst affected cities in India - work has started on the ground to target the city's 75,000 or so street-dwelling children.

Girl prostitutes in Bombay
Prostitution is widespread in many cities in India
In a bleak area of northern Madras, scores of people live in shacks which cling to the sides of derelict office buildings.

I went there with Joseph, an HIV-Aids outreach worker with Karunalaya - a community group working with street children.

He says: "This is a so-called red-light area. Here many pimps are working and commercial sex work is also going on."

Assisting sex workers

Joseph explains that within 10 metres of where they stand there are red-light houses, but he also points out that they cannot go there because it is a sensitive area.

Pimps and people associated with them hang around there.

He also describes how children work with the pimps and assist the commercial sex-workers.

Bill Gates
Bill Gates pledged $100m for AIDS prevention
Mohan is just 16 years old and has lived in the same tiny pavement shanty with his disabled mother since he was born.

He says his friend is doing pimping work.

"He gets 20 to 50 rupees, the girl gets 200 and the brothel owner gets more than 500," he says.

He adds: "Just about everyone round here does pimping work ladies, men, children, everybody."

Mohan himself does not do pimping or sex work.

But he was honest enough to admit he has had sex on and off since the age of 10, with other boys or with girls.

Sexually active

Karunalaya's director, Paul Sunder Singh, says that is typical for children who live on the streets, having either been born there or run away from home.

Mr Singh explains that as soon as the children land up on the streets they are forced into being sexually active, at first by their peers but then realising they will have to fend for themselves.

Six year old beggar, Delhi
Sometimes young children move from begging to prostitution
He says: "For their survival they also do sexual favours for the paedophiles. For that they get paid a small amount of money and also these boys start having sex with the commercial sex workers who are around where they live."

Unprotected sex is combined with ignorance.

A recent survey suggested more than 90 percent of Madras street children had no knowledge of the meaning of HIV or Aids.

That was the trigger for Karunalaya and another NGO, funded by the city's Aids control society, to take action.

Education

In a Karunalaya class, in another of the 15 neighbourhoods where the scheme is taking place, I was huddled with a group of street-dwelling girls from the age of 10, almost hidden on the ground between parked cars.

The instructor, Usha, is encouraging the girls to say what they know about HIV and Aids.

There is embarrassed laughter as Usha uses a candle to show how to put on a condom.

The group applauds for one girl who copies the instructor's method.

One of the girls present, Laxmi, has just been found by the organisation for the first time.

From having no knowledge in the morning, she has learnt that HIV is likely to be spread by having multiple sexual partners.

She also correctly says a condom can prevent it.

Regular discussions

Another girl is less confident. She wrongly thinks Aids can be cured.

To help the knowledge be absorbed properly, Karunalaya keeps contacting the same children and invites them for monthly discussions.

With the outreach project in Madras now six months old, Paul Sunder Singh says it is already having a tangible effect.

He says that, among the street children, there is a growing awareness of how HIV is transmitted and a regular uptake of the condoms that Karunalaya leaves in strategically placed boxes.

He says they are happy there have been no positive cases - so far.

See also:

14 Nov 02 | South Asia
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