Download HIV/AIDS groups in a province in Pakistan say funding for their work has stopped and been directed into flood relief.
The province was hit by devastating floods in August 2010.
And the local government in Sindh says they have directed HIV/AIDS funds from international donors into rehabilitation programs for over a million people left homeless by the floods.
As Naeem Sahoutara reports, from the regional capital Karachi, this is putting in jeopardy key
AIDS prevention programs.
25-year-old Fouzia is giving a workshop on safe sex in the sex district of Karachi.
Holding a packet of condoms, she explains how they can be used to prevent HIV infection.
In front of her, are small group of female sex workers aged between 20 and 50 years old.
Until recently 35-year-old Zaiba didn’t know anything about HIV/AIDS. She had been having unprotected sex since she was a teenager.
“I had heard little about condom, but I absolutely knew nothing about HIV/AIDS. I thought it was a respiratory disease. One day a health worker visited my home and talked about the disease, but I hardly listened. But when a sex worker died because of cancer, I was frightened. So I visited the health worker and asked around. Then I know how fatal HIV/AIDS is… Thank God I’m safe now.”
She now teaches other sex workers how to protect themselves against HIV/AIDS and has turned part of her brothel into a health clinic.
“I always keep condoms in my house. If anyone around needs one they can just knock on my door, even in the middle of the night and I will give them a condom.”
According to official data, nearly 100 thousand people in Pakistan live with HIV/AIDS.
Most of them are in Karachi.
In 1987 the Pakistani government launched a national HIV/Aids program. But activists say it has failed to reach the most high risk group – sex workers.
Mirza Aleem Baig is the President of the Gender and Reproductive Health Forum.
“In 2004, only 4 percent of all sex workers were using condoms. That’s why we started work here. We live with in the community and we choose outreach workers from the community as field operators. A year later, nearly 70 percent of all sex workers were using condoms.”
His group has survived for five years with funding from the World Bank and other international
Donors given to them through the Pakistani health ministry.
But last year the funding stopped.
“Now the government is using the money for something else. They say more people die in traffic accidents than HIV/Aids. This is so wrong. When we ask the money from them, they say they don’t have the money. Right now we can’t even pay outreach workers.”
The Sindh provincial government says the AIDS funds are being used for flood victims.
Dr. Abdul Jabbar Sheikh is the Program Manager for the government’s Aids Control Program in the province.
“The program in Sindh was running smoothly with more than 300 million US dollars fund from the World Bank but devastating floods happened across the country last year. So the government has had to use the HIV/Aids funds to rehabilitate the survivors of the flood. Since then, the World Bank stopped giving us more funds.”
The World Bank officials in Pakistan deny this and in an email said ''no project resources were reallocated toward floods recovery programs.”
But AIDS groups insist the money has stopped and are getting desperate.
HIV/AIDS carriers and their families recently held a protest long march demanding the funds be returned.
Dr. Bhim Heerani is with the Pakistani Society the group that organized the march.
“Once a person is declared with Aids, her health level deteriorates badly. We need strong support for people with HIV, but there’s no funding for that. World Bank has withdrawn funds for HIV/Aids sector. We are very worried about the lack of fund for the next period. We’re raising the voice of the vulnerable communities we’ve been serving.”
And money is not the only problem.
“There’s a Taliban militant group threatening us to vacate premises and stop providing services or be prepared to face the consequences. But, we stay and continue the program. We have a cause. If we stop this, we fear that HIV epidemic will spread like fire in the jungle throughout the country.”
Back at the brothel-turned-health clinic…
Children living in the red light district are studying. This six-year-old little girl wants to become a doctor.
Another sex worker, Armisha, does not want her daughter to follow her footsteps.
“My mother was a sex worker. She didn’t want me to follow her but I was forced to. Now I don’t want my daughter to become like me. I want her to become an engineer or doctor… that’s more respectable.”