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Sex and shopping brings HIV crisis in Iran

In a smart boutique displaying an array of miniskirts and skimpy tops, the shopkeeper was too busy attending to his female customers to listen to a sermon on HIV/Aids. "I don't know anything about it at all. Come back after I've finished with my customers," he told the volunteer health education worker.

The volunteer, Amir Fattahi, was unsurprised. Observation and experience told him he had interrupted no ordinary business transaction. The four young women, he surmised, were prostitutes striking a deal with the shopkeeper offering sex in exchange for free or cheap clothes, an increasingly common arrangement in Tehran's fashion shops.

Health education workers say the practice undermines efforts to combat HIV/Aids in Iran, where the disease is increasingly spread through sexual contact. Along with health officials they believe Iran's strict sexual mores are loosening among its predominantly young population.

An official drive has been launched to raise HIV/Aids awareness, which lags behind that in the west. However, experts say the fight to stop the disease spreading is being hampered by a lack of hard facts.

While the latest figures show 13,704 registered HIV cases, World Health Organisation and Iranian health ministry estimates put the true figure at between 70,000 and 120,000. Experts believe many infected young people do not seek blood tests because they are too ill-informed or are afraid of their parents finding out.

In the Qaem mall in north Tehran's affluent Tajrish district, where two floors are dedicated to women's fashion, several shopkeepers admitted to first-hand experience of receiving offers of sex. Arash, 23, said he had been propositioned 40 or 50 times in his store. "I reckon that 50% of shopkeepers have accepted sex in return for clothes," he said.

Ahmed Reza, 23, admitted having accepted such offers. "I was sitting outside the shop when two women came and said they wanted to try various manteaus [overcoats]," he said. "They asked for a bargain and I offered them the standard discount. But they said, 'We cannot pay that - if you give us a good discount and your mobile number, we will serve you'. So I gave them more discount and got their mobile numbers.

"I can tell a prostitute by their attitudes and body language. When she asks the price of something, I say it's much more than it really is. Then I reduce it when she asks for discount, so she think she's getting a great bargain and offers sex."

Iran's Islamic authorities attempted a clampdown on the trade by deploying policemen and plainclothes security guards inside shopping malls.

"I don't think [the prostitutes] are HIV/Aids-aware," said Mr Fattahi, a team leader with Iran Positive Life, a volunteer group part-funded by Unicef.

"If they are infected and have sex with three or four shopkeepers a day, you can imagine the danger. I think most of the shopkeepers know the risk but they can't resist the temptation. Most times, the opportunity arises too quickly to take precautions."

The Guardian



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