New Delhi, 23 June 2008: UNICEF in partnership with NACO and other youth organizations organized a National Convention of Peer Educators from May 28 to 30, 2008. The first of its kind convention, held at the Ecumenical Christian Centre, Whitefield, Bangalore, had over 450 peer educators participating from across 8 States and 25 districts of the country with the aim to create a platform for young voices to fight against HIV and AIDS and take up issues that affect youth in the country.
UNICEF Chief of HIV and AIDS section, Vidhya Ganesh in her welcome address stated, “India has over 2.2 to 3 million people living with HIV and AIDS and over 35 percent of AIDS cases reported are below 25 years of age. Young people are the key to overcoming HIV and AIDS and their participation is critical in winning the fight against the epidemic. The National Convention of Peer Educators was an initiative to bring together peer educators from different parts of the country to re-emphasize the importance of youth and community mobilization and the power of team work with regard to HIV and AIDS”.
The convention aimed to strengthen the networks in 25 districts as part of UNICEF’s District Integrated Strategic HIV/AIDS Action (DISHA) program. The convention marked a significant step ahead in UNICEF’s UNITE FOR CHILDREN UNITE AGAINST AIDS campaign which calls upon everyone to come together to put care and protection of children, adolescents and young people at the centre of the HIV/AIDS agenda.
National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO) reports that the current data estimates the number of children living with HIV is 220,000. Nearly 38 percent of women are HIV positive and approximately 40-50 percent of infections occur in young people aged 15-29 years. “It is estimated that there are 200 million young people in high prevalence and vulnerable districts who require access to information, skills and services to reduce their vulnerability to HIV infection. The promotion of safe and healthy sexual behaviour lies at the crux of successful HIV/AIDS prevention programs with 86 percent of HIV transmissions through the sexual route” said Additional Secretary and Director General, NACO, K. Sujatha Rao, in her address to the peer educators.
Congratulating all the peer educators and encouraging them to continue the good work at the field, Ms. Sujatha Rao said, “To reach the vulnerable populations in rural areas, where over 57 percent of HIV persons in India live, we have created an out-reach strategy called the Link Worker Scheme that will result in enhanced information and knowledge, motivation to practice safe behaviours and better life skills among youth to handle social pressures”.
Collectively exploring and building an understanding about the roles and responsibilities of youth and young people as an agent for change, the three days at the convention not only created awareness but also re-emphasized the importance of peer support and community mobilization at the district and state level. The convention steered a coherent direction for the peer educators and explored ways to bring about greater understanding of their future work based on their own discussions and recommendations.
The convention offered a mix of plenary sessions with a focus on the role and impact of peer education in reproductive health and HIV/AIDS, along with skill workshops, “Chalo Kuch Seekhen” to enhance skills in leadership, photography, networking, team building, community mobilization and using different mediums for HIV communication – puppetry, pantomime, folk art etc. The event offered the peer educators and red ribbon clubs network an opportunity to highlight the work done by them at the community level in the live market place. The interactive stalls put up by each State showcased some of the work designed by young people themselves. The peers narrated their case stories through photographs captured in the pre- convention phase and conveyed key messages on HIV and the campaign to unite against AIDS through artistic mediums such as dance/theatre and short plays.
A 12 year old boy, Rajesh (name changed), is HIV positive and on treatment, from Bellary district in Karnataka. During his presentation in the plenary, he shared that both his parents are not infected and he contracted the disease through blood transfusion. He said, “Initially I faced a lot of discrimination at school, children never sat with me, never ate food with me and were scared of touching me. Ever since I joined the support group meetings of KNP+ I have gained confidence and more information on transmission of this disease and now I even share my knowledge with my classmates in school and they have also overcome their fears about this disease. I now have more friends and enjoy going to school”.
“Jamghat” (gathering), provided a platform for discussion and learning from each other, which helped the peer educators build and strengthen partnerships reaffirming their commitment to fight against the epidemic. Most of the learning’s from ‘Chalo Kuch Seekhen’ workshops were performed and showcased at the market place and at the cultural session in the evenings.
The highlight of the event was the facilitation, steering and reporting of the convention by the young peer educators themselves. At the closing session, in the presence of Ms. Sujatha Rao the enthusiastic teams comprising of photographers, narrative reporters and speakers reported back on the events of the convention and voiced their experiences, challenges and opportunities of being part of the reporting team. A newsletter “Yuva Jan Patrika” with stories written by peers, in their own language including photographs captured by them was released by Ms. Sujatha Rao.
Pre-convention trainings were organized on photography, effective writing/documentation and effective facilitation/public speaking. The first phase of these trainings in photography were conducted in three districts, namely, Bangalore (Karnataka), Purulia (West Bengal) and Surat (Gujarat) whilst the second phase was concluded in Bangalore three days prior to the Convention as an intensive two day workshop under the guidance of senior skilled resource persons.
The overall aim of the convention was to create a safe space wherein young people can learn about HIV/AIDS prevention and be trained as resource and information posts within their own communities. The convention proved successful in meeting its objectives and it energized and motivated the youth peer leaders to return to their communities with a renewed vision, and a charged spirit to play an even greater stronger role in combating the HIV and AIDS epidemic.