The beauty parlor is serving a bouquet of clients; business is booming. Chameli, the parlor's head beautician, is bustling about the shop floor supervising a haircut here, an eyebrow threading there and a herbal facial in between. Gleaming vials of creams and plump hairbrushes line the parlor's counters, even as a steady stream of customers troop in for treatments.
However, make no mistake. Chameli's outfit is no run-of-the-mill beauty shop. It is a unique transvestites-only parlor, part of an HIV/AIDS outreach initiative administered by the Tamil Nadu Aids Initiative (TAI). Funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's Avahan Scheme, TAI has been successfully working in the area of AIDS prevention amongst transvestites, sex workers and destitute women in the state's 14 high-prevalence districts since the last three years.
Mothering an intensive and large-scale support programme, TAI - administered by Chennai-based NGO Voluntary Health Services - has so far managed to reach out to over 60,000 male and female sex workers in the state in synergy with 25 NGOs. And thanks to such efforts, Tamil Nadu - which topped India's list of HIV/AIDS' most-affected states - has today been able to keep the spiraling number of HIV infections under check. In fact, so successful has TAI been in the area of HIV prevention and control among its target group that other states are now emulating its template.
Last year, the organization hit upon the brilliant idea of launching a slew of transvestites-only beauty parlors across the district to cater exclusively to this community. Discounted rates and a comfortable environment soon had transsexuals trooping in. After the beauty treatment, clients are also guided to a doctor for an AIDS check-up that is included in the discounted beauty package.
But it is clearly a `massage with a message' at these parlors because even while treatments are underway, the parlor's transvestite staff talk to their customers about safe sex, condom usage and the importance of having a healthy body along with a beautiful face. Interestingly, many of TAI's community workers have now given up their sex work after being trained as beauticians under its vocational programme.
TAI's 32 clinics for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) reach out to about 50,000 people with structured intermitted therapy (SIT) treatment services. Compared to 60-odd people visiting a TAI clinic a year ago, over 600 people come in every day now. Furthermore, the organization's Sundaramukhi and Naam programmes - aimed at eliminating fear and promoting health-seeking behavior amongst the HIV-infected - have gone down well. TAI also helps provide sex workers, transvestites, HIV+ people and underprivileged women with occupational alternatives by giving them vocational training in streams, such as tailoring, beauty, cookery, entrepreneurship and in the arts and crafts.
"TAI addresses the vulnerability of the underprivileged," elaborates Dr Laxmi Bai, TAI's Project Director and community medico. "Their low self-esteem and poor socio-economic background makes these people extremely susceptible to all kinds of sexual infections. However, a community-driven approach gives them a feeling that this is their own programme, as it involves them in decision-making too."
Ever since the HIV virus was first discovered in India, in 1986, in Tamil Nadu, the state today has about 240,000 people suffering from it. Community support has thus become crucial in AIDS prevention and control. It is here that outfits like TAI help tremendously by bringing together a motley group - HIV+/AIDS-affected sex workers, transvestites and the underprivileged - on the same platform with healthcare providers, the government and NGOs.
At TAI's centres, transvestites do double a whammy as AIDS counselors and community advisors - disseminating information about AIDS, Sexually Transmitted Infections (SITs) and distributing condoms to other transvestites.
Meenakshi, HIV+ and a TAI counselor and spokesperson for the Tamil Nadu AIDS Control Society (TANSACS) and the South Indian AIDS Action Program, has helped set up the Society for Positive Mothers Development (SPMD) that has brought discriminated women under the TAI umbrella. "When I first came to the TAI centre, I was afraid. But now I'm quite at ease telling people about condom-usage and TAI's unique services," she says.
TAI also offers two path-breaking initiatives, Akshay Patram and Vastra Dhanam - which provide food and clothing to destitute women so that they can be discouraged from entering prostitution. "When I first came to the TAI centre, I was in rags. Today, I have six pairs of clothing and enough to feed my baby and me," Sarada, 18, says proudly.
Adds Prabha, another TAI community leader, "My husband suspected me of infidelity... Soon after marriage he even stopped supporting me. I had no way to sustain my baby and myself so I drifted into commercial sex work. However, TAI helped unshackle me from my sordid past by giving me emotional support and vocational
According to UNAIDS, India has over six million HIV/AIDS-infected people. Since the disease's stigma is intense in the country, experts reiterate that apart from medical help, community support is crucial in AIDS prevention and control. And it is here that community-driven and empathetic organizations like TAI can play a catalytic role.