By Priyanka Khanna
Purulia (West Bengal) – Sunita Mahato, a petite, demure 18-year-old girl, had dropped out of school when she was only eight. Though she missed out on education, nonetheless, she has learnt some essential growing-up lessons.
Sunita now knows that as a girl enters womanhood, she undergoes physical and emotional changes. She learnt how to maintain menstrual hygiene, how to communicate better and how to prevent contracting HIV infection.
Sunita is a member of constitutionally recognized backward Scheduled Caste. She came to know all this and much more by interacting with other young people of her age and by becoming a part of a Youth Information Centre, located in the premises of the locally-elected village council or Gram Panchayat office in Purulia district of the eastern Indian state of West Bengal.
“Before the Panchayat started this centre, I hardly used to interact with others of my age. I used to think I am the only one facing problems but now I know that I am not alone and that it is okay to talk about these issues,” Sunita told West Bengal School Education Minister Partha De who was on a visit to the district to review the UNICEF-supported HIV/AIDS prevention programme.
The programme is being implemented by Panchayat system (a three-tier structure for self-governance and decentralization of power to people at the grassroots level) in partnership with UNICEF and others in state. As the minister went from village to village, he met scores of young boys and girls like Sunita who are benefiting from the programme targeting them in more ways than one.
“Equipping young people with knowledge and life skills helps preventing HIV spread, in building self confidence and thereby building a better tomorrow. I am happy to note that the youth are learning about HIV/AIDS and other issues pertinent to their lives as they pass through a critical phase in life,” the minister declared after his day-long field visit. The minister has been on the forefront of involving youth in the battle against the deadly virus. The visit to Purulia was specifically aimed to evaluate the success of programme targeting young people and to consider up-scaling to include the entire state.
Partha De also talked about addressing the issue of HIV/AIDS prevention in a holistic manner, for example, he said that without girl’s empowerment or education, achieving sustainable answers to HIV/AIDS problem would prove futile.
The minister was accompanied by elected representatives from the district like the Sabhadhipati and other Panchayat members, senior officials of the West Bengal State AIDS Prevention and Control Society (WBSAPCS), the District Magistrate and others. The minister also met elders and gatekeepers to know their opinions and concerns.
Sunita is one of thousands who have benefited from UNICEF-supported multi-sectoral programme called peer educator outreach that is aimed towards prevention of HIV spread among school drop outs, who are considered to be at high risk of contraction HIV/AIDS. The programme is being implemented in three vulnerable districts of the state – Purulia, Murshidabad and Jalpaiguri.
A peer educator is a youth from a village who is nominated by the community, undergoes training on life skills, reproductive health, and HIV/AIDS prevention. Each village has two girls and two boys who act as peer educators. The peer educators further conduct at least eight hours of session among their friends who dropped out from the school and are most at risk to make them aware about their vulnerability to contracting HIV/AIDS and how to protect themselves.
Some 390 common meeting places called Youth Information Centres (YICs) have been created for the purpose of facilitating interaction between peer educators and young people. These YICs are usually located at Gram Panchayat offices, youth clubs and other existing structures. Here young people interact with one another, learn about HIV/AIDS and life skills through various games and materials like carom board, playing cards, flip charts, leaflets, among others that incorporate key messages on HIV/AIDS.
In addition, large-scale sensitization and orientations to involve elders, parents, members of the locally elected village councils and religious leaders are being carried out in the districts. Purulia is among five districts in the state where HIV prevalence has crossed one percent in adult population. While state HIV prevalence rate in the state is 0.4 percent (2006, WBSAPCS), the national average is 0.88 percent (2005, National AIDS Control Organisation).
The impact of the intervention is already visible in terms of creating an enabling environment in the district, where there was high denial in 2005. The awareness level increased within a short span of time and the proportion of women who have heard of HIV/AIDS jumped from 16 percent in 2005 to 32 percent in 2007 (Source: NSSO, 2005 and BSS 2007). The awareness level, however, is below required levels.
“UNICEF has played a key role in involving Panchayat, District and Health administration in HIV/AIDS prevention programme. Impact of the intervention has already been observed. My recommendation is to replicate this type of convergence in other districts of West Bengal,” said WBSAPCS Joint Director (Training) Dr. N. Deb.
Preventing HIV among young people is at the core of UNICEF’s global and India response. Along with partners, UNICEF has been implementing “Unite for Children, Unite against AIDS” campaign that focuses on “Four Ps” -- primary prevention among young people; prevention of mother-to-child transmission; paediatric Anti-retroviral treatment; and protection and care for children affected by HIV/AIDS. With DFID support, UNICEF developed partnerships with a range of agencies like the Panchayat system, government departments, networks of people living with HIV/AIDS, NGOs and other stakeholders in the state of West Bengal.