Nodal teacher Rajani Thuse conducting an awareness session with girls in Mahilashram High School
By Vidya Kulkarni
For the girls studying in 9th class in Mahilashram High School in Pune, marriage is still a distant proposition. Yet, one thing they are all determined as of now directly concerns it. The girls say they would confirm that the boy is HIV negative before giving their consent. ‘Normally income, status, personality or stars constitute decisive factors in a marriage. But far more important than these is the HIV status. Matching of blood reports matters more than matching of stars,’ is shared opinion of these girls, who are well aware of the prevalence of HIV/AIDS pandemic and getting prepared to contend with it.
Mahilashram High School is one of the 20223 schools in Maharashtra where School Adolescent Life Skills Education Programme (SALSEP) is being introduced for 9th and 11th class boys and girls since 2005. This programme is positioned as a key intervention in preventing new HIV infections and reducing social vulnerability to the infection. SALSEP is a joint venture of the State Department of Education, Maharashtra State AIDS Control board and UNICEF.
Today, there are 5.1 million people in India living with HIV/AIDS. Almost half of all new infections are reported among people between 15 to 24 years old. This fact necessitates that any effort to turn around current prevalence rate must involve youth with age appropriate plan of action. Counting on these imperatives SALSEP has put the energy, creativity and leadership of young people at the center of the fight against HIV/AIDS by building their knowledge and shaping ideas and attitudes regarding sex and sexuality. ‘Know AIDS for No AIDS’ forms the core of this school level intervention.
Explaining significant features of this programme, which reaches to millions of students across the state, Dr. Tipre, State Coordinator of SALSEP from Department of Education said, ‘while numerous activities for HIV/AIDS awareness have long been introduced in schools, SALSEP is certainly a step further. It adds further dimension and value to these activities and integrates it in school curriculum as one of the important aspects of the Life Skills education. Over 25 activities are designed and systematically carried out throughout the year with the students. The understanding developed in 9th class gets reinforced in 11th class with an addition of relevant topics, such as coping with peer or family pressure.’
The execution of this wide reaching programme is carried out by a team. One teacher from each school is identified and trained as nodal teacher to carry out SALSEP activities at the school level. Then there are District and State Resource Groups and Master Trainers who are responsible for overall coordination and training respectively.
Students of Mahilashram High School enthusiastically taking part in interactive session of SALSEP
Rajani Thuse, the nodal teacher from Mahilashram High School appreciates creative and interactive nature of the programme. ‘The design of SALSEP curriculum gives scope to involve students, build their trust, make them open and clarify their doubts. Take for instance Question Box activity, where students can put their queries anonymously. So far we have received thousands of questions. We take them up in capacity building sessions by integrating them in role plays, case studies or group discussions.’ According to Rajani Thuse, who has extensive experience of working among adolescents on HIV/AIDS, ‘imparting information is important but it is not enough in itself. Students must be encouraged to weigh it against their experiences. Activities like role play and group discussion enables such introspection and thereby enhances their understanding.’
The most critical aspect of HIV/AIDS awareness is dealing with stigma associated with it. Rajani Thuse said, ‘sometimes students come from HIV affected families. We extend them required emotional and counseling support. But they will feel secure in schools only when their peers do not isolate them for their family background. Therefore we emphasize need for compassion towards people living with HIV/AIDS and their family members in all our interactions.’
The knowledge and insights that students get from this programme are undoubtedly useful in their personal lives. Rajani Thuse cites examples of students who are also keen to help others in their neighborhood. Akshata Aathawale in class 9 could not stop herself when she came to know of a widow staying nearby who was being harassed by her in-laws suspecting her HIV positive. Akshata volunteered to support the distressed woman and checked her latest blood reports, which happened to be HIV negative. Then she went on to explain the in-laws about her clear status and succeeded in persuading them to accept her. The problem of HIV/AIDS pandemic is compounded by the stigma attached to it. Therefore proactive efforts like these stand quite relevant today. It is noteworthy of this programme that many more students like Akshata are willing to contribute to awareness building.