1st Step To Win The Battle Against AIDS Is Sensitizing Our Young Population

On the 1st of December 2018, World AIDS Day marked its 30th anniversary with the official theme -“Know Your Status”. We have indeed come a long way since the launching of this annual observance in the 1988 World Summit of Ministers of Health on Programs for AIDS Prevention. As per UNAIDS’ global estimates of 2017, only about 75% of people living with HIV (PLHIV) know their status, out of which 79% are on treatment. Evidence from India reveals that of the 79% PLHIV who are aware of the status, mere 56% are on Anti-retroviral treatment.

The number of HIV testing and counseling (HCT) sites as well as of the treatment (ART) centers has increased. Mobile community-based testing services that reaches people in rural areas for early testing are also being operationalised. Outstanding attempts have been made by National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO) to encourage use of condoms via catchy advertisements broadcasted on All India Radio and national television. The Indian government has also dedicated its efforts to eliminate new infections among children through its Prevention of Parent to Child Transmission Programs, which provides treatment to pregnant mothers and babies who are exposed to HIV.

Even with these achievements we are still far from attaining the target of eliminating the AIDS epidemic as per the Sustainable Development Goals for 2030. The reasons for this are manifold: gender inequality, exclusion, discrimination, violence, stigma, lack of non-judgmental spaces to talk about sexual activity, absence or inadequacy of sexuality education provided, high-risk sexual behaviour, gender-based violence and abuse etc.

For instance, according to the Gender Inequality Index, India’s GII value is 0.524 which indicates a conspicuous gender gap with only 39% of the female population over 25 years having received at least some form of secondary education. Certain vulnerable sections of society- such as migrants, urban slum-dwellers, women in rural areas and of course the adolescent and young population- do not have sufficient access to healthcare facilities.

The use of contraception by the unmarried population is inconsistent as sexual activity is still perceived to be for reproductive purposes. This not only leads to unsafe sexual behaviour, but also increases the incidents of unplanned pregnancies. Indian women also face serious challenges in accessing safe abortion services with restrictions and refusals even by registered government facilities. The young population receives nothing but awkward silence and abstinence driven messages from persons of authority. In the absence of appropriate know-how they resort to unsafe and risky sexual behaviours contributing to the burden of disease.

It is true that these social drivers thwart the existing efforts of preventing the spread of HIV. However, the problem is a bit larger than that. With the on-going efforts we might be able to eradicate the HIV epidemic, but we’ll still fall short in our journey to achieve sexual health for all. Despite global evidences suggesting the need for sensitizing the population at an early age, dialogue on sexuality and sexual activity are largely ignored. Owing to the existing stigma around the topic, the young approach adulthood with confused and conflicting notions about sexuality which adversely affect their sexual health. Hence, there is a need to take a step ahead and attempt to develop abilities of the population at an early age, to help them adapt to and overcome these social hurdles.

On similar lines, Prayas Health Group, a Pune based NGO working in the field of HIV and sexuality, started a new initiative, to improve the abilities of the adolescents and youth to uphold their sexual health by using peer-led technological interventions. Abilities that are particularly important and relevant in the Indian context have been identified through research and consultation with experts.

Broadly, the abilities could be grouped into three categories- abilities to seek awareness; abilities to self-regulate and abilities to act. To elaborate, the abilities to seek awareness refer to be able to know and find information along with the abilities to discriminate useful information from the incorrect ones. However this awareness must be followed by modification of personal attitudes and tendencies to adopt health promoting behavioural tendencies.

Finally, there are those abilities required for developing new behaviour patterns and to essentially carry out responsible sexual behaviour. These abilities would thus ensure a sustainable behaviour change, leading to responsible sexual behaviour, thereby not only reducing the risks of HIV, but ensuring an overall improvement in one’s sexual health. The details of these abilities have been published in a report named “Capabilities Matter”.

Early in 1980s which started the era of HIV, the society at large recognized the need to start a discourse about safe sexual behaviour in order to spread awareness. But with medical advancement which provided successful treatment and management of HIV, that need became less and less important, thereby, restoring the previously maintained hush about topics of sexuality.

To address the problem from a wider perspective, there is an urgent need to do away with the silence accompanying matters of sexuality and encourage uninhibited communication on the subject. This will not only ensure consistent use of safe sex measures and appropriate healthcare seeking, but also motivate overall sexual health promoting behaviour. In the midst of multiple sexual health-related adversities faced by the population at large the broader challenges of achieving sexual health must be considered as one.

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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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