HIV: the lingering risk
`... there was this red hot flaming fire, this overpowering smell of incense and this overwhelming sound of chanting.I was not sure what was going on and then I realized, she was going through the marriage rituals...'
`Some Alis are so feminine and beautiful that I get confused ... I have to remind myself that some could be men.'
AS a severely marginalised group, the major earning avenues for the "hijras" are selling sex, begging and performing at certain rituals. Left with a few options, most of the "hijras" are engaged in commercial sex. During their stay in the nearby towns enroute to Koovagam, on the marriage night and also during the following days, frequent sexual encounters involving receptive anal sex take place. HIV thrives in these high-risk settings.
`Even the heat and dust cannot deter the spirit of the Alis while decorating the street through which the procession carrying Lord Aravan will travel.'
Though the "hijras" and men having sex with men (MSM) are recognised as groups vulnerable to HIV, what distinguishes the high HIV-risk environment at Koovagam is the intensity of multi-partner homosexual activity. Most of the participants report a higher-than-average number of clients and an extremely low usage of condoms. Besides facilitating the spread of infection among the participants engaged in unprotected sex, this occasion also heightens the risk of spreading the infection to the general population. The fact that many men, who engage in sex, are either married or have heterosexual partners justifies this concern. At a microscopic level, the festival sets an unusual platform where the risk of HIV transmission is substantial.
Governmental and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have risen to this challenge and have been taking steps to reduce the HIV risk of participants of the festival. In the last few years, NGOs have begun to set up safe-sex stalls, mobile clinics etc. for distributing condoms and organising awareness programmes.
The "Kuthandavar festival" is a good example of how ancient cultures or traditional societies accepted behaviours which modern society sees as social deviance. Compared to modern societies, people engaged in such behaviours had not been socially marginalised and hence not vulnerable to social ills. The fact that Indian mythology and folklore abound in non-discriminating stories about homosexuality, people with undefined gender, transsexuals, and transvestites suggests that traditional societies had been far more tolerant. This tolerance is the key to the reduction of their risk-ecology.
Extracted from Aravan, Kuthandavar-Aravan festival, India. Text by G. Pramod Kumar, Photographs by Anita Khemka, produced by UNAIDS, New Delhi, 2002.
Send this article to Friends by