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I Believe The Tragedy Of HIV Is A Greater Equaliser Than Current-Day Sectarian Politics

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PFIEditor’s Note: This post is a part of #YoungSambandh, a campaign by Population Foundation of India and Youth Ki Awaaz to find solutions to improving access and awareness of sexual and reproductive health and rights among young people. Have a story to share? Share it with your thoughts and suggestions here.

NACO Report 2017 estimates over 2.14 million people with HIV live in India. As elections sweep across the country and political engines get at each others’ throats – this is a vote bank easily ignored.

Maharashtra, Telangana, UP, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal together constitute 75% population of people with HIV in India. Not coincidentally, these states also happen to be the largest Lok Sabha constituencies. Sigh! If only political parties raised their standards to be more inclusive of the minorities, side-tracked on the basis of sexuality, health, caste, identity, sectarianism, and more.

“Ever since I came out in the open through my articles on Youth Ki Awaaz and Safe Masti about living with HIV, I have had the good fortune of talking to, counselling and being there for several others.” – Vishwa Schoolwallah

Ever since I came out in the open through my articles on Youth Ki Awaaz and Safe Masti about living with HIV, I have had the good fortune of talking to, counselling and being there for several others. Every month, I get to talk to at least a handful of people who have recently found out about their own HIV statuses. They are scared, have no one to go to, and no idea where to go – I relive my own journey of accepting my HIV status every time I help them accept theirs.

From people who don’t use WhatsApp or email, to people who I have had to converse with using Google Translate because I do not speak/read Kannada, Telugu, Tamil or Bengali, to people who are married and are scared for the lives of their family and children, to highly educated designers, accountants, bankers, hoteliers, shop-owners, college students – I have been able to hear their fears and understand the inherent hatred that comes with the first realisation that HIV has permanently changed your life.

The rich diversity of people I have been able to speak to, has been painfully humbling. People from every and any walk of life you could think of, no matter how educated or uneducated, rich or poor, hailing from whichever region of India – have felt connected to each other through me – not because of their political inclinations, but because of suffering, pain and the stigma against them. Each one unique, each one the same.

I do not speak only for myself, here. I speak for the people I meet in waiting areas of Safdarjung Hospital ART Center, the newly relocated and centrally located AIDS Health Foundation, the Monga Clinic in Galleria (Gurugram), Medanta’s Department of Virology’s Specialist Dr. Kataria’s office, and Virology Department of Microbiology in AIIMS – sullen faces with facial wasting smile at me knowingly; excessively lean arms on a large, thick frame wave a quiet hello of recognition; downcast, dark-circled eyes glance sidewards at me, as we count the months that passed since we visited the clinic at the same time. A rickshaw puller sits beside me on a wooden chair waiting with empty bottles of Viraday in a pouch asking me if I, too, got HIV from a sex worker at GB road, two friends stand across the hall with sling bags hung loose on their bony shoulders whispering of MD, Heroin, Chitta, and some other drugs I cannot quite catch, a 5’8” heavy-built eunuch decked in a sari and traditional South-Indian jewellery converses loudly with a counsellor about the incorrect count of ART rationed to her, a nervous 21-year-old sits across me on the couch talking to someone in pseudo-American DPS-English, a married couple stands at the reception desk with their young son, failing to remember their file-numbers.

Waiting area outside Safdarjung Hospital. Image for representation only. Source: Sanchit Khanna/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Each of these chance ‘un-encounters’ makes a profound impression in our collective sub-conscience – we know we aren’t alone in battling the cruelties of life. We are connected by the tragedy of HIV and its many self-deprecating, debilitating, side-effect-heavy experiences. We all have something common – a drug combination that is supplied mostly by Mylan and CIPLA. Even though each of our lives is vastly different, this Virus with many different strands of rapid mutations reminds us of what we have in common aside from the virus itself – our humanity.

Here is a small lesson for the Gandhis, Mayawatis, Jayalalithas, the Patels, and the Rajputs who uphold a divided regional-identity above collective global-Indian selfhood. Leadership should talk about how individual-insufficiencies can combine into a collective abundance. Remembering that, while we don’t have enough individually, we have more than needed collectively. When we focus on completing, instead of competing with each other – we are moving forward together as a people.

This is why I believe HIV is a greater equaliser than the current-day sectarian-democracy. While political parties divide us to carve a vote bank out of us, HIV connects the people I meet at medical centres in this common shared experience of dealing with HIV – the discrimination, the fear of being discovered, and the concern for medication, and lifelong health.

HIV enables my fellow HIV + countrymen and I to set aside our differences of caste, religion, regionality, political views, socio-economic status. It enables us to see ourselves as brothers and sisters. It fosters dialogue between people who hold differing views, beliefs and experiences of the world – encouraging us to share, to talk and to listen to each other’s stories in solidarity.

My belief in the principals of democracy have been strengthened, since I became HIV positive. My belief in Indian politics remains undecided, though, partly because of polarised conflicts between groups of people. I belong to a group of people, too, the People Living with HIV (PLHIV) – and citizens of the world’s largest Democracy.

Remember to vote, and hope, for better leaders to emerge.

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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, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’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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