The phenomenon of prostitutes offering shopkeepers sex in return for free or discounted clothes is becoming more common in Tehran's shopping districts, undermining HIV/AIDS prevention efforts in a country where the virus is increasingly transmitted sexually.
Health officials and experts say they believe the practice in part stems from loosening sexual mores among Iran's predominantly young population. They worry that many young people in the country are uninformed about HIV transmission risks.
Iran Positive Life, a volunteer group funded in part by UNICEF, is working to raise HIV/AIDS awareness among shopkeepers. In three months, volunteers have spoken to an estimated 5,000 young Iranians in shopping malls, parks and coffee shops. "I don't think [the prostitutes] are HIV/AIDS-aware," said IPL volunteer Amir Fattahi. "If they are infected and have sex with three or four shopkeepers a day, you can imagine the danger."
But awareness of HIV/AIDS does not always translate into safer behaviors. "I think most of the shopkeepers know the risk but they can't resist the temptation," said Fattahi. "We have found that while people know about HIV, their information is not necessarily enough for them to use precautionary methods when engaging in sex," said IPL Managing Director Amir Reza Moradi.
"At the same time, it's hard for us to reach sex workers, so our education workers go to malls and speak to shopkeepers?. ... If shopkeepers become educated and change their attitudes, hopefully the sex workers will notice and change their own ways," said Moradi.
Recent figures show Iran has 13,704 registered HIV cases. However, World Health Organization and Iranian Health Ministry estimate a more accurate figure would be between 70,000 and 120,000. Experts believe many infected young people do not seek testing due to ignorance about the virus or because of fear of their parents' finding out.