Sex workers in Bangladesh help fight HIV

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By Naimul Haq

DHAKA – Shohagi, 19, walks down a corridor to an audience of about a dozen commercial sex workers. a loud and confident voice, the fellow sex worker shares her knowledge on the use of the condom.

“This is your protection from any sexually transmitted [STD]. Without it you could suffer a lot,” warns the young girl at a drop- centre organised by the Bangladesh Manobadhikar Sangbadik Forum (BMSF), a non-governmental organization working to prevent the transmission of HIV and other STDs.

“Initially we acted as catalysts to and educate sex workers. Now sex workers educate their peers for their own safety.”

As Shohagi demonstrates how to slip on a condom over a dummy, Kohinoor Banu speaks up from the audience, “We could not have learnt about such things anywhere else.”

Located around 200 kilometers southwest of capital Dhaka, Kushtia is a small district where people subsist mostly on agriculture. But there are also those who have turned to drugs or prostitution due to poverty and lack of jobs.

“Prostitution and drug addiction are nothing , but they are a big threat a society where education levels are ,” Mohammad Alamgir Kabir, coordinator of BMSF in Kushtia, IPS.

They focus on -risk groups like sex workers. “Awareness lessons work like magic,” Kabir says. “They virtually cost nothing. Initially we acted as catalysts to and educate sex workers. Now sex workers educate their peers for their own safety.”

For a densely populated country of 150 million, Bangladesh is fortunate to have no more than about 3,000 known HIV positive cases. This is despite a incidence of STDs, a literacy rate and porous borders countries like and Myanmar.

A total of 1,300 AIDS cases have been identified till December 2013.

Strong commitment, timely donor support and effective government-NGO collaboration are behind Bangladesh’s successes on this front.

Bangladesh, according to UNAIDS, is among the few developing nations which saw early intervention in combating HIV/AIDS – it was made a priority in the mid-nineties.

Dr Hussain Sarwar, of the National AIDS/STD (NASP), IPS, “We focused on providing support for priority groups, preventing vulnerability to HIV infection and promoting safe practices.

“Many countries, despite having burdens of HIV infection, did not even recognise its prevalence. We were well ahead in preparing to minimise the impact of HIV/AIDS.”

Rabeya Khatun, 21, and Kohinoor Begum, 27, are both regular visitors at the drop-in centre in Kushtia. “Such a user-friendly centre really helps,” says Kohinoor who has two school-going children. Khatun says, “We get free condoms, counseling and testing for STDs. The centre has given us the right education at the right .”

Most commercial sex workers in Bangladesh have access to drop-in centres, which have been opened the help of NGOs and are part of the national HIV intervention .

“It is these thoughtful initiatives that have kept the figures . Voluntary blood tests among high risk groups show an HIV infection rate of less than 1%,” says Dr Nazmul Hussain of NASP. However, the figure is higher among intravenous drug users (IDUs).

“In 2002, we found that the figure had crossed 4% among IDUs, who have been a concern. Unlike other groups, IDUs are hard to persuade.”

Rabiul Islam is one such heroin addict. “I tried to quit, but it keeps coming back,” says the youngster in his mid-20s. Rabiul and some of his friends work as cooks at a in Kushtia.

Light House, an NGO in Kushtia, has been working them for four years to prevent the spread of HIV, and bring some discipline into their lives.

Mohammad AK Abdul Bari, program coordinator of Light House, told IPS, “We work through our peers who identify IDUs and send them to our drop-in center where we offer all support related to STDs and HIV/AIDS.”

Mohammad Anisuzzaman, the drop-in center manager, says, “We have a very strong vigilance . Every IDU is tracked down and registered. IDUs are also sent for friendly counseling.”

The low HIV/AIDS prevalence rate can be credited to about 45 local and national level NGOs.

“The government and civil society have a strong partnership,” Dr Leo Kenny, UNAIDS Bangladesh Coordinator, IPS. “NGOs have implemented around 75% of HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment and care activities nationwide.”