Rushali Gajabhaye,18, (left) is part of the UNICEF funded Red Ribbon Club (RRC) program in Chandrapur District, Maharashtra. RRC's are voluntary village level forums for young people to spread information on safe sex practises to prevent HIV and AIDS.
By Diana Coulter
CHANDRAPUR, India, 1 December 2011- Rushali Gajabhaye hasn’t travelled past the fields, coal mines and cement factories that surround her small village. But the 18-year-old is more sophisticated than most teenagers her age.
Without hesitation, she will stand before a crowd of other village girls and talk about the importance of safe sex, or spend a few moments demonstrating the proper application of a condom on a plastic model of a penis.
In the conservative context of this small village of Datala in rural Maharashtra, these are brave actions. But Rushali is undaunted and clearly proud of her volunteer position with the village’s Red Ribbon Club. Her group is working to prevent the spread of HIV, AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases in her community.
The Red Ribbon Club, part of a programme supported by UNICEF, aims to raise awareness of HIV and AIDS, spread knowledge of preventive measures and reduce stigma and overcome discrimination of people living with AIDS.
“I want to help my village,” Rushali says with such conviction that her intricate earrings swing wildly. “It is not difficult to share this information with girls because they are just like me,” she adds. “They want to stay healthy.”
In the beginning, it wasn’t easy, Rushali admits. “People here did gossip about me and they didn’t want to send their daughters to this club.”
It didn’t help that the sarpanch (village government head) wouldn’t support the club when it started in 2006.
“At first, I did wonder why this programme was necessary in our village,” the sarpanch, Asha Rohane, now admits. “I thought they were teaching rubbish because we have nice girls and boys here.”
But after Rohane watched the group organize public information campaigns, and heard her two daughters talk about what friends were learning, she relented. “I realized that the world is changing and it is best that my girls learn how to protect themselves,” says Rohane.
Now her daughters are among 39 girls between the ages of 11 and 18 who attend club meetings every Sunday in the village health centre.
Although the village might seem untroubled by much that is modern, it lies in the midst of the thriving industrial district of Chandrapur. Many work in neighbouring factories or at the massive thermal power station nearby. Local highways are jammed with a constant stream of trucks serving this commerce and the transient activity can also encourage disease. The district is currently struggling with a high prevalence of HIV and AIDS.
Staying safe from HIV and AIDS
Another club member, Vikas Rohane, 19, meets with boys in their club to talk about condom use, disease transmission and other prevention issues.
In a matter-of-fact manner, Vikas ticks off on his fingers the topics that he raises in the group. “We tell them not to have sex with many partners, to use condoms, to take care with injections or drug use because disease can spread like this, and that it can also pass between mother and child,” he says.
Red Ribbon Club members go for their own HIV and AIDS test at a nearby district hospital, and they’ve encouraged other family and community members to do the same.
The club also visits pregnant women so they can explain the risks of adult to child transmission.
At the front of their meeting room, they also keep a green shoebox with a large hole cut in its top. This ‘question box’ allows community members to privately submit any written questions that they might have about disease prevention. The club works on the answers together and posts them for the public to see.
Shital Chide, 16, says her father encouraged her to join the group so she would learn more about the health risks that she might face in her life.
“It is good,” Shital says of her club experience. “This is not something to be shy about. We are simply talking about ourselves.”