Ujwala: reaching sex workers who solicit online

Two women look in a box of supplies and one holds a mobile phone

Key information

  • Organisation: Alliance India
  • Country: India
  • Region: Asia and the Pacific
  • Stage of innovation: Stage 4: Go to market strategy developed
  • Start date: May 2020
  • End date: Apr 2021
  • Type of innovation: Services delivery innovation: new or different way of providing a service
  • Budget: US$60,000
  • Funded by: MAC AIDS Fund

Summary of intervention

The increasing use of mobile phones, apps and the internet means fewer women are selling sex in physical ‘hotspots’. This is making it harder for HIV/SRHR programmes to reach women who sell sex.

Ujwala aims to reach sex workers who advertise virtually. A mobile helpline was established to provide information on HIV and sexual and reproductive health (SRH) relevant to sex workers. Gatekeepers’ contact details were collected from sex work websites and 400 were sent communication materials, GIFs and the helpline number via WhatsApp and text. Helpline callers received video-calls in response. Continual virtual outreach and follow-up video calls over a year built the trust of gatekeepers and sex workers. Programme staff then began directly supporting sex workers, joining their WhatsApp groups.

Ujwala reached 4,340 women, half had not been reached before (54% of new service users were below 24 years). 2,958 women tested for HIV, 5 (and 1 male partner) tested positive, 3 went on to access HIV treatment. 652 women were treated for gynaecological issues, including 1 who was treated for cervical cancer. 903 accessed other SRH services. 194 women received skills-building to address gender-based violence. 115 women were tested for tuberculosis: 5 were diagnosed and treated.


Ujwala has been recognised as a successful interventions for women in sex work who solicit online. The learnings of Ujwala project has been shared with the National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO) which has acknowledged the need to explore virtual networks for reaching out to hidden and unreached women in sex work.

next steps

The revised guidelines of India’s national HIV programme now has a chapter on reaching virtual key populations, but it does not provide a clear step-by-step approach or methodology for doing this. Ujwala’s design has been shared as unpublished evidence to inform the development of guidelines for WHO/the National AIDS Research Institute to conduct a size estimate and virtual mapping of women in sex work.