Condoms@call centres: Why single them out?

They are a familiar sight at railway stations and on college campuses across India. Now condom vending machines may find a niche in call centres too.

Earlier this week, the Andhra Pradesh State AIDS Control Society (APSACS) announced that the authorities have asked call centres and BPO companies to install condom vending machines. “This is underway. The machines will be installed soon,” APSACS project director RV Chandravadan told a news conference in Hyderabad. The Mumbai District Aids Control Society (MDACS) had made a similar announcement in June this year.

Campaigners for HIV awareness are cheering. But its not a problem solved, by any means. Chandravadan unwittingly underlined one of the main hitches in the scheme when he declined to name companies and share details of call centres.

He told journalists that IT companies would not want their names to be made public as this could bring them a “bad name”. It was proof, if any were needed, that for a majority of people, condom vending machines continue to be both taboo subject and shameful object.

Pallavi Srivastava, for The Times of India

“Unfortunately, we connect condoms with immoral sex. This should change,” says Dr Suniti Solomon, founding director of YRG Centre for AIDS Research & Education, Chennai. Dr Solomon, who documented the first case of HIV in India as far back as 1986, reportedly raised the issue of rampant AIDS among “call centre Romeos” at an international medical conference a few months ago. The retired professor of microbiology emphasises that condom machines should be installed wherever young people gather for any length of time. “They are a high risk group,” she says.

Its an assertion few could dispute. That is why the authorities are targeting call centres. MDACS, for instance, plans to install 3,000 condom machines in disparate locations over six months, in three phases, the last of which will target call centres. “We are talking to BPOs,” says Harish Pathak, additional project director at MDACS.

“Their lifestyle is potentially high-risk because they are likely to be economically mature but socially immature.” Pathak explains that this is largely because a call centre workforce is typically young and 90% comprises sexually active people. They are relatively well-off and have odd, anti-social hours of work.

Its a touchy issue because many night-shift workers challenge the assumption the graveyard shift is fraught with sexual dangers. Asmita Bhattacharya (name changed), a former call centre employee, says, “Night is the day at call centers. Why single them out? Other professions like advertising also have late hours.” She insists that call centres have busy work routines and strict codes of conduct, making it almost impossible for employees to indulge in anything, except, well, work.

And yet the condoms-for-call-centres initiative may be leaving call centres with an unsavoury reputation. Bhattacharya and other call centre workers might well wonder at the impact of this growing link between call centres and condom machines. Would it leave the call centre saddled with the same unflattering image as the Hindi film industry in the 1930s?

At the time, middle-class parents said cinema was not a “respectable” profession. Could middle-class parents to do the same with call centres, discouraging their children from joining the industry, believing them to be hubs of depravity? The more puritanical Indian, after all, holds condoms responsible for encouraging youth to have casual sex.

The hub-of-depravity tag is one BPO officials are desperate to avoid. “We have always said that its not the call centre industry thats prone to HIV. Its the youth that are prone,” says an official of a Hyderabad-based BPO. The two state governments that have made the condoms-for-call-centres connection, also insist they never intended to stigmatise the industry.

“We don’t want to say that they are irresponsible,” says Dr Pathak of MDACS. “But more than 80% of HIV infections spread through sex, and young adults are definitely more susceptible to it.” He builds his argument by adding that within two months of Navratri – the time of year when young men and women are socially permitted to mingle – there is a 100% increase in the number of abortion cases in Maharashtra and Gujarat.

Dr Solomon of YRG Centre believes condoms should be made as accessible as sanitary napkins. She says youth awareness would go a long way towards controlling the spread of HIV. “Today, 80-90% of sex workers and truckers use condoms, because they have been targeted,” she says. “On the other hand, nine out of 10 patients are from other walks of life. In fact, 80% of the women registered with us are housewives with a single partner.” Time, then, to present packs of condoms alongside sanitary napkins?

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