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India Inc's safe sex drive sees drop in STD cases

There has been a drop in the number of employees affected by sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) after Indian companies launched a safe sex drive in 1996, following alarming HIV/AIDS statistics

Realising that employees with sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) could prove expensive in terms of healthcare costs, several Indian companies are actively promoting safe sex practices.

“The initial response was slow, but after five years of spreading awareness some industries are reporting an appreciable drop in employees affected by sexually transmitted diseases,” says Sandhya Bhalla, programme director of the Confederation of Indian Industry's (CII's) Indian Business Trust for HIV/AIDS programme. Industry's efforts to promote safe sex and help rehabilitate people with HIV/AIDS have come into sharp focus with Microsoft chairman Bill Gates' arrival in India to lend a helping hand in the country's battle against the killer disease.

A staggering four million people in India are AIDS victims. The disease's inroads into the corporate sector came to light in 1995 when the CII did a baseline study among 10,000 workers and managers in the organised sector and found that widespread promiscuity had fuelled the growth of AIDS among employees.

Since then, several firms have tried to implement a workplace advocacy policy and awareness programme to fight the spread of the disease. The CII has conducted a pilot study of 50 companies to study the efficacy of such initiatives.

So far, 1,700 of the total 4,300 member companies, including a number of tea plantations in the northeast, have opted to implement the advocacy packet at various levels -- starting with workers and reaching out to women and adolescent children studying in industry-run schools and institutions.

“Through community outreach programmes, we are striving to instil an awareness of safer sex among workers by integrating HIV/AIDS programmes into the ongoing social and health safety programme. We are also looking at de-stigmatising HIV/AIDS by creating employment and training opportunities,” says Bhalla.

The problem's magnitude and the response to the pilot scheme encouraged the industry body to set up the Indian Business Trust last year to undertake skill development and income-generation schemes for people with HIV/AIDS.

The Trust currently has 16 trustees, all of whom contribute at least Rs 100,000 annually towards various activities.

The corporate sector's fight against AIDS began as a small endeavour to create employment opportunities for HIV/AIDS-positive people in New Delhi, through the NGO, Sahara. CII members gave Sahara waste paper for recycling and then bought stationery made from the recycled paper.

On November 8, one of the trustees granted Sahara Rs 3.5 lakh to set up a 30-kg-per-day paper-recycling plant in Delhi as well as cover six months' operational costs. This will help the NGO generate more income for people with HIV/AIDS.

The Indian Business Trust has also spearheaded a product and training programme at a women's home in south Delhi, in association with the Aurobindo Ashram. The programme will train two people and encourage them to train two more people as well as help rehabilitate the women.

“Women are the worst hit in such families. The stigma attached to HIV/AIDS makes them most vulnerable,” says Bhalla.

The Trust has decided to work with more NGOs, community development centres and small firms to set up `wellness centres' that will have at least one doctor, one counsellor and three outreach workers to help spread AIDS awareness.

The centres will initially be set up in Rajasthan, Orissa, Uttaranchal, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and a northeastern state.

A service charge of Rs 100 per small and medium company, and Rs 20 per worker, every quarter, is being planned. This will help the centres contribute towards the general well-being of workers, particularly HIV/AIDS patients.

According to Bhalla, a fund for the treatment of HIV/AIDS victims is also being contemplated. “The effort will be to channelise funds towards those who need it the most.”

Source: Indo-Asian News Service, November 12, 2002