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Eradicating AIDS: The Battles Ahead

By Alok Panda:

Acquired immune Deficiency Syndrome- AIDS, one of the world’s most dreaded diseases, and a pandemic associated with increasing social stigma and economic burden has been in news recently. The disease caused by the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), severely compromises the immune system of the patient and has consumed some 30 million lives since its emergence in the eighties, according to the UN data (2009). Not only does the disease degrade the health of a person, but the mental trauma, social stigma and economic burden associated with expensive treatment of the disease further complicates the issue and calls for the urgent need for its eradication.

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The recent news of a baby girl from Mississippi who was born infected with HIV, transmitted to her from her mother and was subsequently declared cured after following the standard Anti-Retro-viral treatment, is highly welcoming news and may represent a breakthrough in the treatment of this deadly disease. Although, this isn’t the first documented case of complete cure of HIV, which was achieved in an adult in Germany through bone marrow transplant, each such case increases our confidence and faith that this deadly virus which has since destroyed several lives can definitely be overcome. These cases represent the war we have won, however the battle remains to be fought courageously.

For one thing, the battle against HIV/AIDS has to be fought from several fronts. As from the medical front, currently the best treatment available against AIDS is the use of Anti-Retro Viral (ARV) drugs. These drugs target the virus during various stages of its life cycle, thereby slowing their takeover of the cells of the Immune system. However, these drugs are quite expensive and can have severe side effects, although they have been documented to increase the life expectancy. Until an effective cure for the disease comes out, it is expected that the availability of the ARV’s be made to everyone who has the infection and further steps should be taken to ensure their mass production and to prevent the selected pharma companies to make a cash-cow out of them i.e. marketing them as generic drugs. The role of the people’s representatives i.e. the Government becomes crucial in this regard. These steps will at least lead to lessening the mental burden of the already suffering infected persons.

Further, it is said that “Prevention is better than Cure”. The best front to fight the disease comes from preventing it. The modes of transmission and the science of viral transmission is quite well known for some time, therefore, it remains an utmost priority to disseminate the information. It is said that “knowledge is power” which cannot be truer in the case of HIV prevention. The role of sex education to young adults and to vulnerable population (sex workers, men having sex with men) becomes much important in this case, as unsafe sexual contact- both heterosexual and homosexual is the leading causes of the infection. Not only education, but promotion of safe sex practices such as the use of condoms, their proper usage, promotion of monogamous relationships, information regarding the risks of intravenous Drug usage etc. will go a long way to address the situation.

Next comes the Social stigma associated with the disease. Dissemination of information is crucial in this regard too. First of all it has to be brought into the knowledge of people that HIV isn’t a communicable disease, so the general outcast of people suffering from the infection is no less than discrimination. Talking of discrimination, the social stigma associated particularly with the Gay and Transgender community needs to be addressed, as person belonging to these community form a significant chunk suffering from the infection. Although diversity in sexual orientation needs to be protected and equal rights given, but even if this is not done, at-least decriminalization of the acts needs to be promulgated and people belonging to the community made comfortable, so that it becomes easier for both the health practitioners as well for the concerned individuals to seek information for their problems and get treatment. Furthermore, religious doctrine of certain religions as Islam and Christianity, stipulating the non-use of contraceptives, particularly the use of condoms as unnatural, needs to be addressed. This becomes particularly essential in case of Africa, where AIDS has reached epidemic proportions. Although difficult, it will definitely pay off in the long run to take the religious leaders into confidence in reducing new HIV infection cases.

Even though we have won few wars against the monster virus, the battle isn’t over yet. It is in our own wisdom to eradicate this disease and make life a bit easy for all of us.

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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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