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Frontline/World: The Sex Workers

Raney Aronson
Friday, June 25, 2004; 11:00 AM

In "The Sex Workers," FRONTLINE/World offers viewers a tale of two cities: Mumbai, where more than 60 percent of the city's sex workers are infected with HIV; and Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), where a community outreach project has kept the infection rate among sex workers to approximately 10 percent.

Producer Raney Aronson was online Friday, June 25 at 11 a.m. ET, to discuss "The Sex Workers" and HIV/AIDS in India.

Frontline (washingtonpost.com)


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Washington, D.C.: Raney, how did you get interested in this story?

Raney Aronson: I did my junior year abroad at Benaras Hindu University in India when I was 19, and studied India's local system of medicine. That meant that I worked with and studied with many doctors, and medical students there. It was 1990 and coming from the U.S. where awareness about AIDS on college campuses was at an all time high I kept asking them about it. The response was always along the lines of Indians are not at risk for AIDS because they are not a promiscuous society. They saw AIDS as a western disease. i remembered being deeply concerned about this and over the years I've been watching the situation, and reporting on the situation there.

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Washington, D.C.: Thank you for an excellent program. You highlight the difference between Mumbai's and Kolkata's experiences with reducing HIV/AIDS among sex workers. Do you see any parallels in government and/or citizen action between Kolkata's success and the high literacy rates in Kerala, the other Indian state run by a Communist government?

Raney Aronson: This is such an interesting question/comment. I was certainly intrigued that West Bengal was run by a communist government and i do know the same is true for Kerala. What we've found with Kerala is the numbers of AIDS cases are lower than other areas -- whether this has to do directly with a communist led government is the big question. I think it might although there is no similar kind of workers union like in Kolkata. Other health officials say the reason is due to the role of women in Kerala, the fact that there are no huge commercial centers, as in Mumbai. Why one state is better off than the next is hard to actually determine as there are multiple variables.

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Cherry Hill, N.J.: Did you ever feel unsafe at any point while reporting this story?

Raney Aronson: Thanks for asking! I did feel unsafe at times when I was in the red light districts at night -- but not in such a way that I thought I could actually be harmed. It's a creepy and dark part of the city, and of course being a woman and a foreigner I was easy to spot. We definitely were yelled at, and in a few cases had things thrown at us. But ultimately I felt we were ok to film there, or else I would have taken my crew (and myself!) out of there.

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Clifton, Va.: In a society that is relatively strict where women are concerned -- arranged marriages, etc. -- how is it that there is a booming prostitution industry?

Raney Aronson: This is such a great and insightful question, but one very difficult to answer. What I found was (and this is not based on any studies, just my own personal experience reporting the story) the red light districts teamed with migrant workers. These workers are oftentimes away from their wives for the better part of a year. And they are the ones who visit the sex workers the most often. That said, even the middle and upper classes have a tradition of men visiting sex workers, and many of my women friends (younger and older even) told me that in India's society they really can't question their husband's actions. I'm certain this is not true accross the board, and I can also think of a few Indian women friends of mine who would never hear of it. But, the fact remains that men get married very early in India, and many experts say that when this happens in a society, men tend to wander more. But all of this is just conjecture...it's agan a really hard question to actually pin down, but it is confusing to see on the one hand a very conservative society, and then a booming sex industry that trafficks young girls.

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Boulder, Colo.: My wife and I would like to send some money to help the organization which helps the prostitutes in India. Where do we send them and to whom? In advance,thank you.

Raney Aronson: Thanks so much for your interest. I do know all the groups accept donations, the Asha Project in Mumbai which works to combat AIDs on a local level, the Sonagachi AIDS project in Kolkata which is the larger group that really now serves as a model for the rest of India, and of course Sanlapp the group that rescues minors who were trafficked into the red light district. If you would like to pick one, or all to donate money to, please email Frontline World's main email and they will send you details and addresses. The address is frontlineworld@flworld.org. They will be sure to get back to you with this information....thanks.

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Washington, D.C.: Barring ending up with AIDS, what is the future like for these Indian sex workers? What is their mortality rate and are any of them ever able to get out of the life?

Raney Aronson: Many Indian sex workers stay on in sex worker for much of their lives, some eventually becoming brothel owners, and others end up being part of the brothel, cooking and cleaning. Many of them, once they become sex workers, never leave that life. It's very difficult for them to leave once they're in it, so many stay in it - oftenimes the brothel is much like a family. I've seen some very touching situations with older sex workers being cared for by younger sex workers, but then I've also seen the exact opposite. Often it's the older sex workers who purchase the young trafficked girls, much like they themselves were bought 20 or 30 years earlier...
As for their mortality rate, I'm not sure of the statistics on that, overall the statistics on sex workers are pretty unreliable.

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New York, N.Y.: Why is India having such a hard time controlling AIDS? Is the government aware of, and working on, this problem?

Raney Aronson: I can say that the government is definitely starting to take AIDS seriously, but that in a country with more than a billion people it's oftentimes impossible to institute programs that are effective. I do know that many have charged the Indian government with being unmotivated, and that may be true -- the other side of the story is it is a situation hard to navigate. That does not excuse the government, but my feeling is they haven't figured out the right way to combat AIDS. Right now, the government is relying on groups like Sonagachi, or the Asha project to help the situation, and they do actually fund them -- but especially in Mumbai the numbers of sex workers infected are out of control and health officials say that much more will have to be done in order to really make a difference. As Mumbai is India's commercial center, stopping the spread of AIDS there is criitical to the health of the entire nation.

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Washington, D.C.: Are you working on any new documentaries or have any plans to return to India?

Raney Aronson: I will be doing a new documentary for Frontline, but it will take some time to figure out my next idea. India is dear to me, and as I've been going there for 15 years now, I have to assume I'll find a reason to go back!

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Silver Spring, Md.: When the term "sex worker" is used, does that include male and child sex workers or just female sex workers? Did your documentary look at this? (I look forward to watching it)

Raney Aronson: The word sex work does mean any person who sells themselves for sex. But we focus on the women, and girls.

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