By Seema Kurup
Four thousand students, carrying placards and banners with key messages on the causes and prevention of HIV and AIDS, came together to form a human chain in the city of Nagpur in Maharashtra on 26 October, to highlight awareness on the disease.
“Even if I just stand here holding this placard, it will make a difference. It is not often that girls come out on the streets to spread awareness. It will definitely make them think” said 13 year old Neha Sharma.
The event was a part of the HIV/ AIDS global campaign, “Unite for Children, Unite against AIDS”, which aims at reducing HIV/ AIDS among children. “The agenda is to scale up interventions to prevent mother to child transmission of the disease and also make paediatric drugs available to children” said Mr. Krishnan Anandan from the HIV/ AIDS programme team. “The spirit of this campaign is to provide treatment, support and protection for children living with, or affected by HIV/ AIDS” he added.
India has the second largest number of HIV-positive people in the world - 15% are children under 15 years of age.
Organized by Village Uplift Society in partnership with UNICEF, the event also organised a poster exhibition and competition on the subject of HIV/AIDS awareness. “All of us, including our teachers worked together as friends, to spread information on children living with, or affected by HIV/AIDS. We tried to put this information on our poster” said Vipin an 18 year old Biochemistry student, whose team won the 3rd prize in the competition.
Twenty year old Shrikant, organiser of the street theatre group that performed later during the day, said. “Through our play we demonstrated that boys and girls can come together to create awareness. Since the battle is to save young people from falling prey to HIV/AIDS, it is up to young people themselves to bring about a change in the situation through awareness.”
Rickshaw pullers of the city were invited to attend a talk on HIV- AIDS during the latter part of the event. Parag Sunkar, Joint. Secretary of Village Uplift Society says, “They were pleasantly surprised to learn that despite being the poorest, they could still contribute to the well-being of the society.” A visibly moved Parse, one of the thousands of rickshaw pullers in Nagpur says, “Till now we had treated the issue very casually. We carry a lot of youngsters who visit sex workers. After listening to this talk, we will definitely try and tell them to be careful.”
India has the second largest number of HIV-positive people in the world. Among the estimated 5.1 million people living with HIV/AIDS in India, 15% are children under 15 years of age, the vast proportion of whom contracted the virus from their mothers during pregnancy, at birth or through breastfeeding. Women now account for 38% of new infections, and the proportion of mothers giving birth to HIV-positive infants rose from 2.7% in 2003 to 3.5% in 2004. Almost half of all new infections are among young people between 15 and 24, with young girls increasingly more vulnerable.
Commenting on the event, Dr Sanjana Bhardwaj, HIV/ AIDS programme officer in Maharashtra, said “We believe that it is the voice of young people in Maharashtra which can make quantum shift in attitudes and perceptions around HIV/ AIDS. This event has reinforced that belief.”
The event has sparked off a healthy debate among those leading the campaign. Students, teachers and the organizing committee are discussing new initiatives such as HIV/AIDS awareness unit for students in school and colleges, health and awareness camps for rickshaw pullers, seminars and workshops, and more student-led activities on the issue.