Thursday, December 01, 2005

World AIDS Day

Today. Humanity continues to face the daunting prospects of a virus that is claiming over 8,000 lives every day. In fact 5 people die of AIDS every minute. Yes, the potency of anti-retroviral therapy is improving with every passing day, thanks to new advances severely limiting HIV's capability to reproduce inside the body. But the AIDS story itself is worrisome. India says it has 5.13 million people living with HIV/AIDS, the second largest number after South Africa. UNAIDS however says many cases in the country of a billion-plus people go unreported. This is attributable as much to ignorance as the social stigma attached to the syndrome. In a country where comments on safe sex still draw conservative ire like in the Khushboo case, it's no surprise that AIDS is spreading so fast.

PM Manmohan Singh today outlined the need to talk openly about safe sex, but his words will mean little if the government does not draw up a concerted action plan to contain the epidemic. In an affidavit relating to the Naz Foundation submitted before the SC yesterday, the Union Home Ministry stated that ‘‘public opinion and the current societal context in India does not favour the deletion of the said offence from the statute book.’’ The said offence is homosexuality. The political class remians mired in victorian notions of propriety and morality when clearly NGO's such as Naz working with AIDS-affected people see the crying need to decriminalize homosexuality. Section 377 which criminalizes homosexuality as an act against the order of nature and whose primary intention is to deter pedophilesis is a throwback to a British law passed in the 19th century and which has since been repealed in England. The Home Ministry goes on to state that homosexuality is still criminalized in Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Bhutan and Myanmar, hardly the countries that can show India the way in liberalism. On the contrary, South Africa has become the fifth nation after Belgium, Spain, the Netherlands and Canada to legalize same-sex unions. The Naz foundation petition was earlier rejected by the Delhi HC and what way it will go in the SC is anybody's guess.

The Hindu Sunday Magazine did some interesting features on AIDS. West Bengal's attempts to educate people using a friendly neighbourhood icon. Tamil Nadu's relative success in stabilizing the epidemic. And the need to look beyond high-risk groups. It details why women are particularly vulnerable:

The Economist magazine predicts that women will soon be a majority of those infected by HIV/AIDS the world over, "with male chauvinism largely to blame". Research has shown that women are more vulnerable epidemiologically, biologically and socially to contracting HIV/AIDS, and young women are particularly at risk. Indeed, it is estimated that women are nearly 2.5 times more likely to contract HIV than their male counterparts.

In a society where discussion of sex is largely taboo, there are currently few avenues for women to get reliable information about HIV/AIDS. "Far too many women do not know how AIDS is spread," notes Irfan Khan of the Naz Foundation. "There need to be more spaces where women and girls can access information about HIV/AIDS, and also engage in open discussions on sexual health and sexuality."

The rate at which AIDS is spreading among women in the general population is alarming, and the Indian Government is not acting fast enough to check its spread. "I think the situation is pretty much out of hand as far as I'm concerned," says Anjali Gopalan of the Foundation. "We're seeing a tremendous rise in numbers of women who are living with HIV."

Government campaigns still mainly target traditionally stigmatised "high-risk" populations: sex workers, men who have sex with men (MSM), intravenous drug users and migrant populations. Yet the reality is that the new face of AIDS is that of a young, married woman, who may live in a home near you.

Recognising the growing risk faced by young and married women, the video "Maati" is a part of a multi-media campaign entitled "What Kind of Man Are You?" launched by human rights group Breakthrough, to promote dialogue and equality within marriage and encourage condom use among men. "The purpose of the campaign is not to place the blame on men," says assistant director Alika Khosla, "but simply to sensitise them about the issues that women face, and ask them to sit up and think about the needs of a woman."

While men usually contract the disease by engaging in high-risk sexual behaviour, for Indian women, marriage is often the biggest HIV/AIDs risk, with nearly four-fifths of new infections being amongst married women. For Indian women, who usually marry young — it is estimated that nearly 60 per cent of women in rural India marry before the age of 16 — there is an urgent need to spread awareness about AIDS and the importance of negotiating condom use with their partners. Yet AIDS is not simply an affliction only of the poor, rural Indian woman. The number of urban, affluent women afflicted by the disease is rising.

It's a familiar story. Of how patriarchy, ignorance and stigma combine to silence the real victims of this unfolding crisis. We need to wake up now. Homilies aside, bring on a national action plan on the lines of the Pulse Polio Campaign. Engage civil society. Use platforms like Bhagidari to educate and sensitize. Shun bigots who gag sane voices. Most importantly, shed that feel-good impression that you might be carrying thinking you are totally secure. 'Coz dear, you are not.

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