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Mr. India – A Story Of Drugs, Fame And The HIV Virus

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By Pinak Pani Datta:

Manipur, mid 1980s:

The Manipuri youth were enticed by a new wave of drug coming from the Golden triangle through the porous India-Myanmar border. It was cheaply and easily available in every street and corner of Manipur.

According to L. Deepak, the president of Manipur Network of Positive People (MNP+), in the beginning he and his friends were lured by the purveyor known to them that it was the happiest thing happening in America and was doled out without charging any money.

And of course later on, they were forced to buy. So the early 80’s were also an era when crime increased in manifold in the Manipuri society as the loony drug addicts hunting for their daily dose started stealing, robbing and snatching gold earring from small kids occasionally killing them in the process (It is a custom for Meitei boys and girls to wear gold earrings until they reach adulthood). Due to these incidents during that murky era, it was even rumoured that drug addicts are vampires who suck blood.

Like any ordinary youth of that era, Pradip Kumar also fell prey to the set up. A 13 year old guy took refuge to drugs. He started with heroin, “I started doing drugs just for fun. I was probably 14 when I tried heroin for the first time and then marijuana,” he says. But the narcotic high doesn’t always last forever. By the time he decided enough was enough, in 1992, what then looked like a promising career in wrestling and power lifting was already in tatters.

But the worst was yet to come. The syringes had taken their toll. In 2000, he was diagnosed with HIV. “I thought my end was near. I kept telling myself: I will die today, tomorrow or, probably, the day after. It frustrated me and I was dying a slow death,” he told TOI.

He remained aloof from the world, from the indivisible society confining himself only to his house. ART (anti retro viral therapy) at that time was not freely available as of now and every month his family has to cash down about INR 35,000 a month. In spite of that, his health was failing from bad to worse and literally he started crawling. After staying indoors for two years, Pradip Kumar finally decided to battle the dreaded disease. He joined a gymnasium in July 2003.

According to him living with HIV means ‘my immune system is weak’ and he says he has never been affected with any form of malady since he started body building. The only sickness he had experienced was the ‘mental depression’ caused by the untoward remarks of people about his HIV status.

In December 2007 he won the Mr. Manipur title in the 60 kg category. The celebrated day was also the time when he made a crucial stirring decision to stand up for those living with HIV/AIDS. Consequently, he bluntly and boldly announced to the world that ‘he is HIV Positive’. He thought by revealing his status to the world, the discrimination and stigma towards the HIV+ people would eventually decrease.

Henceforth followed a frenzy of media and public attention. He went for the nationals and won the silver in the 50th senior national bodybuilding championships in Margao.

From being infected with the killer virus in the summer of 2000 and hiding it from the world till 2007 when he became Mr. Manipur to winning a silver medal at the National championships, his is the stuff that we thought only the legendary Magic Johnson was capable of.

It’s been such a tiring journey,” confesses Pradip Kumar, who is now the brand ambassador for Manipur AIDS Control Society.

Today Pradip may be a famous HIV Positive but also a disgusted man with the attitude of some of the agencies and especially the Manipur state government. The Manipur State Aids Control Society made him their brand ambassador for two years from march 2008 to march 2010 paying him INR 6000/month. But he was not happy with the way they were functioning or using his HIV status.

Sometimes Pradip  feels like an HIV+ animal exhibited in the zoo for the world to see. He only wants ‘the society to be his walking stick’ and expects all HIV+ people to be treated fairly. He affirms again, ‘nobody wanted to be an HIV+’ and that it is not HIV/AIDS that kills the person but the discrimination of the society.

His message for those who are living with the virus is :”body building is the best medicine

[Excerpts from Pradip Kumar’s interview by Oinam Doren, a freelance journalist]

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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