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Call centre ‘romeos’ represent an HIV risk

September 28th, 2008

Dr Petra

A story in today’s Independent on Sunday claims ‘Call centre Romeos threaten India’s fight against AIDS’.

The piece suggests that women working in India’s call centres are having sexual relationships with male co-workers and putting themselves at risk of contracting HIV.

Stories like this one are always tricky since on the surface they suggest a genuine concern for female workers. But they also often reinforce race and gender stereotypes and don’t really help women much at all. There have been reports that female call centre workers have been coerced into sex and exploited by managerial staff or male co-workers. But Indian girls working in call centres are often moving away from home, living more independently and choosing to have romantic (although not always sexual) relationships with men of their choice.

This doesn’t necessarily fit the stereotypical role of an Indian woman, which is why some health workers have been skeptical about many of the claims about what goes on in call centres. They worry that much of the hype around call-centres-as-vice-dens is designed to prevent women from entering the workplace rather than protecting their sexual health.

Clearly problems can arise where women are working more independently in countries undergoing transition and where women’s rights are not always respected. Women working in countries with high levels of gender inequalities have reported abuse from male co-workers – particularly in factories and call centre settings.

The Independent reports how condoms are being provided within call centres to prevent the spread of HIV, but this may not be adequate. We know that simply providing condoms is not very helpful if those who need to use them are not empowered to do so. A woman working in a call centre who decides on a sexual relationship with a man needs to be able to access condoms and have the confidence to insist a partner uses one, but she also needs to be able to work in an environment where she doesn’t feel sexually harrassed or coerced.

Working in sexual health education is always a challenge since often those promoting educational schemes, sexual health provision or condom distribution services are raised within a sex-negative and often gender-unequal society. Which means when it comes to protecting women’s rights and health we often see pracitioners who should be helping actually subtly (or not so subtly) blaming women. Their reasoning goes that if the woman leaves the home, delays marriage and goes to work then she is inviting problems upon herself. Which can greatly hamper women’s access to reproductive health care and employment rights.

While providing condoms within call centres is one way to tackle the HIV problem a more appropriate response might be to tackle workers rights, reduce sexual harrassment and offer women the opportunity to develop assertiveness skills so they can better negotiate relationships they want. Such an approach is both costly and may not be necessarily welcomed by employers or staff, which is why the condom dispenser approach will probably remain the only means of tackling HIV. And it probably won’t help prevent women getting STIs or reduce unplanned pregnancies.

Fortunately there is an excellent sexual health service in India that offers help, advice and support. TARSHI (Talking About Reproductive and Sexual Health Issues) runs an advice line, has loads of resources and also offers training.

We are used to hearing about call centres being both explotatitive workplaces and a kind of walk-in orgy for all employees, but it might help us more if we were able to have a more balanced view of what is going on for male and female workers in these locations. That will help us see where people are being taken advantage of, but could also allow us to avoid infantalising women who might be making reasonable relationship decisions.

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