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The Fight Against HIV/AIDS In India Can’t Wait: Here’s What You Need To Know

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By Shreya Chatterjee

The year is closing on a rough note with the tragic terror attacks in Beirut and Paris and the heavy downpour that lashed our Chennai people. With few days still to go, I now wake up praying, ‘No more mourning morning’.

Indian members of National Cadet Corps (NCC) hold placards during an AIDS awareness rally in the northern Indian city of Jammu December 1, 2005. India, with the world's second largest number of HIV/AIDS cases, must shed its inhibitions and start talking openly about safe sex to protect itself against the epidemic, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said on Thursday. REUTERS/Amit Gupta - RTR19SKU
Image source: REUTERS/Amit Gupta

This evening while catching up with season’s last discounts my eyes fell on a hoarding that authorities put up this AIDS day. Reminded me of the last month when while scrolling down the Facebook news feeds I came across- ”Reports: Charlie Sheen HIV Positive“. Further scrolling down had more of Charlie Sheen. The incident was a live example of how our awareness is lagging behind time. Biasedly clicking on one of the links opened the Pandora’s Box. The actor was diagnosed HIV positive four years ago. My greatest sympathies go to him. But what hit me hard was he paid hefty amounts to people to keep the news under wraps and still continued to engage with sex workers risking their lives too. He reminds me of the age-old HIV-AIDS stigma that still lingers in our society after thirty years, when the first cases of immunodeficiency virus HIV were recognised.

Know The Virus First

The dreadful virus gradually destroys the immune system by destroying the T-helper cells (a type of white blood cells). Firstly, T-helper cells (also referred as CD4 cells) release certain chemical substance that attracts other white blood cells (WBCs) to the infected area. Secondly, they release chemicals that help the WBCs to multiply which the rate the recuperation on the site of infection. These new WBCs create antibodies which attach itself to bacteria/virus/fungi for WBCs to identify and kill them. But when a body is attacked by HIV, the virus multiplies inside body targeting the T-helper cells itself and hell breaks loose. The infected T cells damage other cells. So basically the cells, which protect us from any infection caused by foreign bodies, lose their ability to protect the body. The infections gulping our body at that time are called Opportunistic Infections (OIs). To name a few we have meningitis, pneumonia, tuberculosis, cancers, and lymphoma.

When To Know Whether One Has AIDS?

HIV + Opportunistic Infection = AIDS

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has prepared a list 20 OIs which are also ‘AIDS- defining conditions’. So if someone has HIV and is infected by one or more OIs, the person will be diagnosed with AIDS.

Humans first acquired HIV with blood contact with apes and gradually the disease got transmitted to more people through unprotected sex, used syringes, childbirth, breastfeeding. The virus can only stay alive in a fluid medium. So the transmission of virus through touch is overruled. Still, there are some myths regarding the disease that circles our society. The epidemic created such a cloud of fear that there still exist people who outcast HIV/AIDS infected and mistreat them. Even some hospitals and doctors are reluctant to treat people with HIV. In our land of laws, when it comes to HIV/AIDS infected people there is yet no specific law to curb the discrimination. But articles 14, 15, 16 and 21 of the Indian Constitution, which deal with basic fundamental rights, protect those infected with the disease to a large extent.

As of now, HIV/AIDS is not curable, but by starting treatment at an early stage keeps the virus from multiplying and destroying the T-cells. But we do have anti-retroviral therapy which can help increase T-cells and protect from OIs, thereby delaying AIDS.

India houses 2.1 million people living with HIV that makes it third-largest in the world. Nationally, there are more men than women as HIV positive. But on a positive note, more and more volunteers are coming up to join the various awareness and welfare programs organized by the Indian Red Cross and various NGOs. It is important for the society to know how the deadly virus affects our body. Even our infinitesimal support can give them the courage to face the world and speak what they experience. They should be encouraged to speak their HIV status and not keep it in a veil. They should not miss out on basic amenities or be bullied or kept isolated. Let’s not make their battle rockier. This New Year let’s resolute to be the stigma buster.

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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.

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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.

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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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