‘We will not remain merely at the receiving end’, seems to be the motto of youth from Devani block in Latur district, as far as HIV is concerned. Hundreds of young boys and girls across villages in the block have shed their fears regarding HIV and are coming forward for voluntary testing. This initiative was an outcome of the SPARSH life skills training organized for the village youth in the block by UNICEF and the SATH network of NGOs.
The fact that almost fifty percent of all new HIV infections in India are among young people between 15-24 years, makes this initiative more significant and a decisive effort in combating spread of HIV infection and its aftermath. As expressed by Anuradha, volunteer from Honali village, “If I am aware about my HIV status, I am in a better position to protect myself and my dear ones.”
This HIV awareness drive has its roots in the Village Health Planning process carried out by UNICEF together with NGOs and Latur district administration in Devani block during August and September 2007. The process, among other things, tapped energies of local youth and identified over 300 village volunteers, who were willing to contribute for social change.
After completing the basic foundation course as village volunteers, volunteers were introduced to Sparsh – an add-on module on growing up, reproductive health and HIV awareness. This 5-day training allowed the youth to overcome their inhibitions and to clarify their misconceptions and thus build a comprehensive understanding of HIV. Enthused with this knowledge the participants made a plan of action aimed at spreading awareness among the villages in their block.
As a first step towards it, a group of volunteers prepared a street play and performed it in a number of villages. It is unlikely to discuss topics like HIV in public in rural areas where talking about sexual behavior is considered taboo. But the volunteers managed to do it and presented the show before a sizable mixed audience of all age groups. The response to this public show was mixed. Some people, especially elders, disapproved this performance thinking that youth are crossing limits by talking about private matters in public. However, the response from young audience was positive. Many were interested in knowing more and sought clarifications to their doubts.
Apart from public programmes volunteers also organised group meetings separately for boys, girls and pregnant women in the village. These close interactions led to their preparedness for voluntary testing.
Laxman Randive, a volunteer from Devani Khurd says, “Since we were promoting voluntary testing we thought we should start with ourselves. Thus all village volunteers first did their own HIV test in the public health facility.”
Laxman then encouraged all Gram Panchayat members for voluntary testing. Acceptance of the local leaders for HIV testing created favorable ground for others. Laxman then mobilized young boys and girls in the village for a one-day HIV camp, where testing was preceded by an interaction with the counselor. Similar efforts have been taken by other village volunteers with the help of NGO to organize awareness camps and ensure proper arrangement for HIV testing at the health centers. So far over 300 youth from 61 villages have come forward for the voluntary testing.
Volunteers recognize that fear element affects people’s well being in many ways. “Many people do not come forward for testing or do not disclose their status even to their family members only because of the fear of social ostracism. Therefore we stress on the benefits of early detection. We also inform them about how this enables the person to access required medication and remain healthy.”
Though a number of village youth join in for the HIV awareness and testing camp, the results are not disclosed publicly. “Confidentiality is strictly maintained,” inform the volunteers. “The concerned person only has access to his/her report. Everyone has to collect their reports personally from the health center. Similarly pre and post test counseling is also provided through the counselor at the health center.”
Devani initiative points that the awareness drive here has moved in a more active mode. Merely imparting information is not going to suffice unless it is understood that everyone is vulnerable to the infection. More importantly, it is essential to remove stigma surrounding HIV and discrimination faced by positive people. Encouraging people for voluntary testing is one way of overcoming fear, which is at the root of stigma and discrimination.