By Jyoti Rao and Alka Gupta
New Delhi 25 October 2007: It was unusually quiet for a room full of children and young people. Sitting around the conference table, the group of 12 youngsters between the ages of 7 and 22 was clearly nervous.
They had gathered in Delhi from different corners of India – Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh – for a momentous occasion. A personal meeting with the President of India, Mrs. Pratibha Devisingh Patil at the Rashtrapati Bhavan. The occasion: to mark the 2 anniversary of the Unite For Children Unite Against Aids Campaign.
For most of them, it was their first visit to Delhi, let alone meeting the President. All of them were front line HIV/AIDS workers and peer educators and had gathered to develop messages that they could present to her.
Jyotika Panchal from Gujarat, said there are still a lot of misconceptions and myths about HIV/AIDS. As a peer educator, she regularly talks to people and clears up their fears and doubts about how the disease is spread.
Swati from Surat and R.Vighneshwar from Chennai are both members of Red Ribbon Clubs (RRC) in their schools. “The Question Boxes at the Centre are very useful. A lot of boys drop their questions anonymously into them and then we deal with them in RRC meetings” said Vighneshwar
The group developed a list of 10 key messages to take to the President and wrote them up on canvas with drawings and designs depicting their hopes and aspirations. After a quick orientation on protocol and security, off they went to Rashtrapati Bhavan.
Meeting the President
Nine pair of eyes almost didn’t blink as the massive Rashtrapati Bhavan gates opened to allow the cars in.
“We are actually here”, exclaimed Swati Patel, a 15 year old peer educator from Gujarat, in delight.
Once through the security checks, the delegation comprising of representatives from the HIV positive network, peer educators and representatives from Ministry of Women and Child Development, National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO), UNICEF and UNAIDS were soon seated in a meeting room overlooking beautiful manicured gardens.
Soon after, the adjoining doors opened and President Patil walked in.
After the brief welcome and introduction, Mayank Agrawal, Joint Director, NACO spoke about the aim of joint efforts “of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare and NACO are to halt and reverse the direction of HIV/AIDS in the country. The focus of the programmes is on prevention, counselling and testing.”
Dennis Broun, Country Coordinator, UNAIDS made a short statement on the efficacy and impact of the Unite for Children campaign, "Many famous personalities have supported this fight and their engagement has been crucial” he said.
Then the peer educators spoke. Preeti, an HIV positive mother spoke about her work with the Positive Network in Delhi and the need to ensure that all the HIV positive persons get the same rights as others.
Jitender, a 16 year old community peer educator from Lalitpur district in Uttar Pradesh stressed on the need for more HIV testing centres at the block level and to set up more information centres like the Red Ribbon Clubs.
The President’s interest was obvious as she listened carefully and asked a number of questions. Jitender’s request struck a chord as the President made a note of it for follow up.
Anand (name changed), a HIV positive child tied the Suraksha Bandhan on the President’s hand as a sign of solidarity in the fight against the disease. Two other young peer educators presented her with their drawings with messages on stigma and discrimination.
The effort of the delegation to apprise the President and enlist her support to fight stigma and discrimination faced by HIV/AIDS affected women and children had borne fruit. The Unite For Children Unite Against AIDS campaign now has a new committed spokesperson none other than the President of India, Pratibha Devisingh Patil.