Although young people form one of the key age groups prone to higher risk in the spread of HIV/AIDS, they need not be merely at the receiving end always, - this is the view of the youth in Chandrapur district of Maharashtra. They have shown that if backed with proper knowledge, skills and motivation youth can play an active role in preventing spread of the virus and addressing stigma associated with the disease.
With this strong belief over five thousand youths across the district came together to celebrate a Youth Convention on 27th February 2007 organised at the Zilla Stadium to express their determination to Unite against AIDS. This one-day event marked the participation of young boys and girls who were willing to gain knowledge about the virus and break open the silence surrounding the issue.
The programme began with a rally flagged off by Gopi Menon,State Representative of UNICEF. Youth, from villages far and near as well as hosts of students from colleges and schools across Chandrapur started from two locations in the city to rally en route to the stadium. Some shouted slogans, others performed cultural dancesMany newcomers were roped in along the way, who at first were mere spectators, but little by little joined the massive march to the stadium.
Once they reached the stadium, select groups gave different performances for the event.
Tribal youths performed a traditional Gond dance, another did a dance to an AIDS awareness folk song and yet another group performed a frank street play about preventing AIDS. The line between “youth gathering” and “AIDS awareness campaign” was often blurred, as the convention was a space both for youth to come together for fun as well as increase their awareness on issues related to HIV/AIDS.
|Actress Neetu Chandra inaugurating the Convention by lighting the lamp together with Gopi Menon, UNICEF.|
Addressing the youth gathering Gopi Menon called attention to the seriousness of the virus spread in India, particularly Maharashtra. “Maharashtra is home for highest numbers of people living with HIV/AIDS. Fifty percent of all new HIV infections in India are among young people between 15-24 years - making the fight to protect India’s future all the more urgent. The committed and sustained action through youth forums, such as Red Ribbon Clubs, can help curb spread of the virus.”
Popular film personalities Neetu Chandra and Indira Aiyyer honored the stage as chief guests. “Openness and communication are strong pillars of a happy family. Do not hide anything significant from your closed ones as it may spoil their lives”, urged Neetu Chandra in the context of HIV/AIDS. Indira Aiyyar appreciated the punch-line, promoting Openness and Knowledge of the Convention. “Be open, be confident and live freely” she told youth.
Shyam Shelavate and Shalu Nagpure, both participants of UNICEF initiated gender and AIDS awareness training programme– Sparsh, spoke on behalf of the youth. Both expressed challenges that they face in reaching out to their peers and communities and expected that public events like this convention would help in improving people’s acceptance. Interestingly the convention itself helped in bringing openness to the issue to a certain extent. This was evident in the number of registrations, over 2000, at the VCTC (Voluntary Testing and Counseling Center) stall set up at the convention venue.
The co-ordination process of Youth Convention was carried out by UNICEF partners, Center for Youth Development and Activities (CYDA) together with local organisations. Volunteers of CYDA and local organisations approached youth groups, youth leaders and Sparsh volunteers and organised focus group discussions with the youth to know their level of understanding and their concerns on the issue. A unique tool, Reflection Diary, was used to elicit responses from a representative sample of youth on sex and sexuality related issues. Preceding the convention a week long “AIDS Saptah,” ( AIDS week) was celebrated all over by volunteers to spread awareness on HIV/AIDS and to mobilize their peers to attend the Convention. All these preparatory efforts got culminated in the one day event that received enthusiastic and attentive participation from youth. Many participants expressed desire to initiate awareness activity in their respective villages. Some suggested use of posters and puppet shows to take message across effectively. Moreover, many expressed need to create and support localized youth forums in order to sustain interest and participation of youth for concrete changes in risk perception and effectiveness of ‘prevention’ programmes.