Condom conundrum

Can a condom bar raise awareness about HIV in India?

In Chandigarh, north India, a study has revealed that 30 per cent of students in the city practise unprotected sex. So I was cheered to learn that a group aiming to raise awareness of HIV/Aids is to launch a condom bar. My enthusiasm was short-lived. The man in charge of setting up the bar could not, he said, discuss the issue with "a lady".

How, I wondered, did he intend to raise awareness among women without speaking to them?

I asked around. Mayank Kaushik, a male student at the city's Panjab University, was not surprised by the response I had received. "Nobody here talks about sex openly. I'm 19 and my parents have never talked to me about safe sex," he confessed. Aseem Aggarwal, another young man from the university, wasn't shocked either, and put me right on Indian etiquette: "It is quite natural that a man did not discuss details with you. You should have spoken about this only to a woman."

Worse was to come when I spoke to young female students. They shied away from offering any opinion at all on condoms.

Undeterred, the Chandigarh authorities have installed 22 condom vending machines in the city, including near the campus. But, without the accompanying education for both sexes, the project seems doomed. One student told me: "Condoms are not used for protection against STDs, but I have seen children making balloons out of them."

India recently outstripped South Africa as the country with the highest number of people living with HIV - 5.7 million at the end of 2005, according to the United Nations. And the rate of infection is increasing rapidly. Mayank believes the Aids crisis is exacerbated by young people's reluctance to talk about sex. Theresa Lacey, of the New Delhi-based Naz Foundation, which focuses on HIV/Aids awareness among students, talks of the importance of reaching the women among them: "Many are too scared to propose condom use. It is a taboo topic."

The fear is that the good intentions of such NGOs and the bravery of initiatives such as the Chandigarh condom bar will count for little if campaigners refuse to discuss condoms with "ladies".