Understanding the social and cultural contexts of female sex workers in Karnataka, India: implications for prevention of HIV infection

J Infect Dis. 2005 Feb 1;191 Suppl 1:S139-46. doi: 10.1086/425273.


Background: The objective of the present study was to compare the sociodemographic characteristics and sex work patterns of women involved in the traditional Devadasi form of sex work with those of women involved in other types of sex work, in the Indian state of Karnataka.

Methods: Data were gathered through in-person interviews. Sampling was stratified by district and by type of sex work.

Results: Of 1588 female sex workers (FSWs) interviewed, 414 (26%) reported that they entered sex work through the Devadasi tradition. Devadasi FSWs were more likely than other FSWs to work in rural areas (47.3% vs. 8.9%, respectively) and to be illiterate (92.8% vs. 76.9%, respectively). Devadasi FSWs had initiated sex work at a much younger age (mean, 15.7 vs. 21.8 years), were more likely to be home based (68.6% vs. 14.9%), had more clients in the past week (average, 9.0 vs. 6.4), and were less likely to migrate for work within the state (4.6% vs. 18.6%) but more likely to have worked outside the state (19.6% vs. 13.1%). Devadasi FSWs were less likely to report client-initiated violence during the past year (13.3% vs. 35.8%) or police harassment (11.6% vs. 44.3%).

Conclusion: Differences in sociobehavioral characteristics and practice patterns between Devadasi and other FSWs necessitate different individual and structural interventions for the prevention of sexually transmitted infections, including human immunodeficiency virus infection.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Culture*
  • Female
  • HIV Infections / epidemiology
  • HIV Infections / prevention & control*
  • HIV Infections / transmission
  • HIV-1
  • Humans
  • India
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Multivariate Analysis
  • Sex Work* / statistics & numerical data
  • Sexual Behavior
  • Sexual Partners
  • Sexually Transmitted Diseases / epidemiology
  • Sexually Transmitted Diseases / prevention & control
  • Sexually Transmitted Diseases / transmission
  • Social Conformity*
  • Socioeconomic Factors