Last year, on Durga Ashtami, 44-year-old Mukund Das witnessed the Kumari Puja. A young girl dressed as goddess blessed those who came to her. Would the goddess bless him as well? Would the goddess cure him?
At night during a local adda session, someone told him about the widely held belief that having sex with a virgin girl will cure those who have HIV since young girls are worshipped as goddesses.
The only place he could think of where he could fulfil his wish, and would not get into trouble with the law and keep it a secret from his wife, was Sonagachi, the red light district of Kolkata, where young girls are sold for anywhere between Rs 200 to Rs 50,000, depending on the brothel owner’s whim.
Ever since he contracted HIV, Das had been afraid to tell his family. But now he could be saved by a virgin goddess. Paying the brothel owner a crumpled wad of Rs 50,000, he selected 11-year-old Ritu. She had an innocent smile. She would do for him.
Ritu had been pushed into prostitution as early as eight and has called the brothels of Sonagachi her home as long as she could remember. Two months ago, a middle-aged man (Das) had forced himself upon her, refusing to use a condom despite her insistence, mouthing obscenities and beating her. He was HIV positive and had come to the brothels specifically asking that he be given a virgin. Her brothel owner pushed her forward claiming Ritu was a virgin.
Virgin Cleansing is the cruellest of all the false hopes AIDS patients are given. This false belief, notes Ruchira Gupta, founder of the NGO Apne Aap which combats sex trafficking, has led to a sharp rise in the number of men asking for girls under the age of 18, who are assumed to be virgins. She said that when she spoke to men about their preferences for young girls, they told her that they like girls who look childlike, innocent and fresh.
Laboni Basu, Apne Aap’s Kolkata project coordinator in an interview to NewsDeeply says:
“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 more, if needed.”
The Virgin Cleansing myth, which began in South Africa, has spread across the world from India to Thailand. Recently, the trend has spread with the movement of migrant workers in Bengal to Bangladesh as well.
Statistically speaking, India has the third largest HIV epidemic in the world. The epidemic is concentrated among key affected populations such as sex workers. The vulnerabilities that drive the epidemic are different in different parts of the country. The pattern of HIV prevalence in the states differ. For example in West Bengal, Arunachal Pradesh, Goa, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Punjab, Sikkim and Uttrakhand 15-24 yr old respondents had higher HIV prevalence than those who were 25 yrs and older.
It isn't just young girls who are victims of such false beliefs. According to a paper titled Rape of individuals with disability: AIDS and the folk belief of virgin cleansing by Nora Ellen Grace and Reshma Trasi, people who are "blind, deaf, physically impaired, intellectually disabled, or who have mental-health disabilities" are sometimes raped under the erroneous presumption that individuals with disabilities are sexually inactive and therefore virgins. In Zimbabwe, some people also believe that the blood produced by raping a virgin will cleanse the infected person's blood of the disease.
The state government has maintained a noticeable silence on the issue, revealing the callous lack of regard for the safety of sex workers and their rights. Gupta, in an interview with IndiaWest, notes that none of these girls can negotiate for protected sex and run a high risk of contracting STDs, tuberculosis, jaundice, and, of course, HIV.
One man's misfortune becomes a young girl's cruel destiny.