She is petite and soft spoken. This IAS officer can come across as a bit of surprise with her humility and simple ways, beating the rhetoric of stereotypical ‘babueses’ most of us are accustomed to. Salma K Fahim was always a ‘shy girl’, but ironically she has been entrusted with a job in one of the most interactive departments of the state government, as she is currently the project director of Karnataka State AIDS Prevention Society.
Educated in a Roman Catholic school in Bangalore, she candidly referring to the school nuns, says that their main aim was to teach the girls how to say no to boys. But to the ‘blasphemy’ of the nuns, the same girl addresses large gatherings on sex. Recalling an adult education session in her Class X at Clooney Convent in Bangalore, she says this was instrumental in broadening her perception about the subject itself. “I have never been judgmental about someone with HIV as I believe that it was due to the choices one has made and in some cases for no fault of theirs. Who am I to judge them?” she asks.
Incidentally her first ‘actual’ interaction with the opposite sex happened only when she started her professional career as a civil servant. “Right from school and all through college, I did not study in any co-education institution. Hence, there was limited contact with boys,” she admits. But this by no means was a disadvantage, as she made the most of her interaction her superior in her job.
Fahim fell in love with her senior officer while serving as an assistant commissioner in Mysore. Ask her how this happened, she replies, “It just happens. We may be IAS officials but our emotions are in place”.
For the eves
A passionate propagator of women empowerment, Fahim deploys basic intelligence and awareness to change perceptions about a ‘taboo’ like AIDS. Her job requires extensive travelling to many backward regions of the state, places where she claims lay the answer to the issues being faced by the department.
Though it is easy to mix up regulation of sex workers and their welfare, Salma has made clear demarcations. After she assumed the post, the main focus area for the department was the resolution of the sex workers’ welfare. “We are not here to regulate sex workers but to ensure their welfare,”, she says. Inferring their Targeted Intervention Approach, she says that supply of condoms, lubricants and combating sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in the high risk group (HRG) would be the key to reduce new infections. “Last year the prevalence of AIDS in the state was 1.76 per cent. This year it has reduced to 0.67 per cent,” she claims and informs that this number signifies the containment of new infections.
With a clear understanding of the issues and statistics in hand, Fahim seldom speaks in a vague tone. “If there is something that I am pursuing and want results in, it is the Prevention of Parent to Child (PPTC) infections,” she says. Currently there are 4,000 such cases in the state and Fahim is effectively pursuing them to bring this number down to a bare minimum.
“We are ensuring HIV tests for every pregnant mother. If there is a detection, we send her samples to the Anti-Retroviral Test (ART) unit and put patients on Neverapen, as per international protocol,” she says. Neverapen reduces the chances of transmitting the infection from mother to child to 7-8 per cent as against 20 per cent, if the drug has not been administered.
Informing edex about a trend in the ‘B’ belt (Bagalkot, Belgaum and Bijapur) of Karnataka, she says that most families have at least one sex worker in the family. She adds that families are aware of this, and as she puts it, “it is no big deal” as the region is part of the erstwhile Devadasi belt.
On whether she thinks the trend is dangerous or not, she says, “Personally, I think it should stop, as I believe in women empowerment but as a government servant, there is a programme designed for them.” Though she concedes that it can be questioned on moral grounds, she argues on their behalf economically.
Recalling efforts by the Female Sex Workers (FSW) community, she mentions a restaurant launched by them in Mysore. “FSW had opened this restaurant as an alternate source of income,” she informs. But the reality is not lost on Fahim — as sex work can be economically rewarding, many prefer to continue in the same profession, she says.