By Gurinder Gulati
Navratri, a nine-night-long festival of song and dance in October, is celebrated by millions of people in the Indian state of Gujarat, particularly by children and adolescents. Festivities are held in specially decorated grounds larger than football fields, offering a much-welcomed opportunity for them to come together and make new friends. This year, UNICEF Gujarat, together with local partners, organised a multimedia campaign within the festival itself, to highlight critical, life-saving information on HIV and AIDS.
Among the estimated 5.1 million people living with HIV/AIDS in India, 15% are children under 15 years of age.
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 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.
In Vadodara, Gujarat’s second-largest city, more than 100,000 people visit the Navratri festival grounds each night. Together with ‘The United Way of Baroda’ NGO, UNICEF set up an exhibition stall, back-lit hoardings, banners, and red ribbon cut-outs carrying two important messages: that HIV/AIDS is increasingly affecting children and young people, and that HIV infection can be prevented and treated, even if not cured.
Large crowds strolled through the colourful panels, charts, and graphs illustrating information on HIV prevalence, how it is transmitted and how it can be prevented. Video spots by national celebrities were broadcast on screens, while volunteers answered people’s questions about the disease. For many people it was a revelation to learn that even children could become HIV-positive.
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.
”AIDS is spreading faster than I thought it was,” said Niketu Dave, a computer engineer, exiting the multimedia stall with his wife. “Also, I never knew that children too can be infected with this disease!”
Yash Jain, a Grade VI student, pointed towards one of the colourful banners, exclaiming “Look Mama!” His mother, Vibha Jain, turned back and read aloud “AIDS is preventable but not curable. Always use condoms.”
“My teacher’s husband would not have died of AIDS, if he had taken precautions according to the message in this banner,” Yash said.
Young people enthusiastically signed onto a banner at the entrance which featured messages they had written on safe practices and behaviours that prevent infection. “When I signed on the flex, I saw several messages scribbled on the use of condom for HIV/AIDS prevention,” said Amisha Patel, an undergraduate commerce student. And throughout the festival, dancers and visitors proudly sported red ribbons and badges, as symbols of support and commitment to the fight against HIV/AIDS.