Gere Champions AIDS Awareness in India

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By RAMOLA TALWAR BADAM
The Associated Press
Thursday, January 11, 2007; 11:34 AM

MUMBAI, India -- Richard Gere urged thousands of sex workers in Mumbai on Wednesday to insist their clients use condoms to help prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS.

"No condoms, no sex!" the 57-year-old actor shouted at an AIDS awareness event in Mumbai, the country's financial and entertainment hub. Gere urged the crowd of more than 15,000 sex workers from Mumbai and neighboring Thane district to repeat the chant after him.

Gere and Bollywood actress Bipasha Basu presented awards to those spearheading HIV prevention campaigns. The crowd's loudest cheers were reserved for Basu, who performed a song-and-dance number, "Atmavishwas (Faith Within)."

Earlier, Gere met sex workers who explained how they use pictures and books to persuade fellow prostitutes to insist on safe sex. But they said it was difficult getting regular customers to use condoms.

Gere, a vocal fighter against HIV and AIDS, launched the "Heroes Project" four years ago to spread the message of prevention to the average Indian.

India, with 5.7 million infections, has the world's largest number of people living with HIV and AIDS. Campaigns aimed at prostitutes and truck drivers _ both high-risk groups _ have helped increase knowledge about the disease.

"Before, there was a total lack of knowledge among sex workers about HIV and even about their own bodies," Gere told The Associated Press. "Now there is a radical change. When sex workers speak of condoms as a norm, it is a powerful statement, it empowers them."

Aid workers estimate Mumbai has 10,000 sex workers. Ashok Alexander, director of Avahan _ an initiative of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation _ said it was vital to make the workers the focus of awareness campaigns.

"Our strategy is prevention in the most vulnerable groups," he said. "Their involvement is key, since they are the architects of HIV prevention."

___

On the Net:

Richard Gere:

http://www.gerefoundation.org/


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© 2007 The Associated Press

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