KOLKATA, India – In the main red-light district, Sonagachi, sex workers and the NGOs working with them have noticed a worrying trend. An increasing number of male customers are asking for virgin girls.
Behind the rise, they say, is a mix of the country’s massive rural-to-urban migration and the prevailing belief among some men that if they have sexual intercourse with a female virgin, they will be cured of HIV or gain some protection against it. And it is putting many girls and young women at risk of contracting the virus – in a country that already has the third-largest HIV epidemic in the world.
Ruchira Gupta, founder of the anti-trafficking NGO Apne Aap, says that in the past few months her organization has seen a sharp rise in the number of men asking for girls under the age of 18, who are assumed to be virgins. Some of the girls staying in shelters run by Apne Aap are as young as 8 or 9. “The numbers are going up and the age is coming down,” she says.
The “virgin cleansing” myth has a long and disturbing history. The practice came to light in South Africa and Zimbabwe in the 1990s at the height of the HIV epidemic and spread to areas of India and Southeast Asia.
It was thought that the practice, which grew out of social and economic desperation, mystical beliefs and a lack of education, had died out in India. But various sources say that not only is it still prevalent, it’s becoming more common as millions of economic migrants move into Kolkata from the surrounding countryside and neighboring Bangladesh.
Many of the city’s residents live in grinding poverty, making them prime targets of India’s huge sex trafficking industry. According to official statistics, 400 women and children went missing every day in India in 2015 and campaigners estimate there are 3–9 million victims of sex trafficking nationwide.
Many of them end up in Sonagachi, one of South Asia’s trafficking hubs. Reportedly the largest red-light district in Asia, it is a maze of alleys and dilapidated brothels, with an estimated population of around 10,000–15,000 sex workers and their children.
In a small community center in Sonagachi run by Apne Aap, a group of sex workers and children huddle around a weekly community session. When asked about the practice of virgin cleansing, one sex worker nods, then gestures at the room – she doesn’t want to talk about it in front of the children.
“It’s common knowledge in Sonagachi,” says Laboni Basu, Apne Aap’s Kolkata project coordinator. “There are no figures on this, but the local girls are telling me it’s widespread. These are rich men who do this. They’ll invest a lot of money to get a suitable virgin. They’re ready to pay almost anything for girl: 50,000–100,000 rupees ($800–$1,600), more, if needed.”
Sahjana das Gupta, a social worker who’s been working in Kolkata’s red-light districts for 35 years says, “It’s very common. The virgin will get infected and it’s getting worse.”
In India and Nepal, young girls are often seen as demigoddesses. Urmi Basu, the founder of New Light, an NGO working with HIV-positive people in some of Kolkata’s poorest districts, says some HIV-positive men are sleeping with virgins in the hope they’ll receive a blessing from a goddess and be cured of their disease.
“It has an absolutely devastating impact on the lives of the girls who are in the red-light district,” Urmi says.
There are approximately 2.1 million people infected with HIV in India. While progress has been made in combating the disease, with the number of new HIV infections almost halved over the past decade, UNAIDS reports that in 2016 only around 53 percent of infected adults had access to antiretroviral treatment.
A key problem NGOs face in tackling the problem is that discussion of HIV is still taboo in India. The virus also disproportionately affects people from lower castes and socioeconomic backgrounds, who often do not have access to medical services. Social subgroups such as sex workers and the transgender community are particularly at risk, and the state of West Bengal has seen increased cases in recent years.
Many infected people do not know the facts about HIV or they won’t tell their family or doctors if they suspect they have contracted it, and some will even try to self-medicate. When asked if enough is being done to raise awareness about HIV and AIDS, New Light founder Urmi says, “In one word – no. There is not enough being done to make people, especially young people, aware of the nature of this condition. There is very little conversation about HIV in high schools and colleges.”
Urmi points to World AIDS day, December 1, as one of the only days when uniform action is taken to raise awareness about the disease. “We can bring in the best doctors, the best counselors and healthcare practitioners, but what do we do with people’s attitude [toward the disease]?” she says.
“No matter what the government or the administration does, the extent of fear and stigma surrounding this condition is so deep. It’s sometimes seen as the modern-day leprosy.”
Dipesh Tank, project director at the Rescue Foundation, a group that rescues girls from sex slavery across India, agrees that the best way to stop the practice of virgin cleansing is to challenge the myth that feeds it. “The government and the authorities must step in immediately. They need to identify the areas and regions where [the practice] is prevalent and run massive public awareness programs,” he says.
“We need to stop this now.”
This story has been updated to clarify that the statistic of 3–9 million victims of trafficking refers specifically to sex trafficking.