Outtakes from India
| April 2007 »
My friend Hala has often said that India is a country of contradictions. I'm staying at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, which is arguably the finest hotel in Mumbai. Many of the rooms were donated and, believe me, I'm thrilled and grateful to be staying here. But standing on the polished marble floor in the grand lobby, surrounded by both wealthy Indians and Westerners, as I look out on the manicured courtyard with white-gloved waiters taking poolside orders I become critically aware of my friend's statement. As beautiful, rich, elegant, sexy, and colorful as India can be, just outside these glass doors lies another India—one that is devastatingly poor, filthy, exploited, unhealthy, and illiterate.
The YouthAIDS crew and I gather in three cars and drive about 45 minutes away to another part of Mumbai. We are going to Dharavi, the largest slum in all of Asia. There are over a million people living in an area slightly larger than 2 kilometers. It is home to the largest population of migrant workers whose main interest is to make money to send it back to their families. These men work in small galas (sweatshops), putting in 16- to 18-hour days and, because they work in illegal businesses, get no protection from governmental interference. They labor at such tasks as steel and leatherwork, sorting plastic, even sewing and embroidery. Their tools are often dangerous and archaic. Along with the migrant workers, of course, lives a large population of impoverished sex workers. These women will have as many clients a day as they can solicit, and charge about 44 rupees (one dollar). However, the prices vary depending on how clean the man is or whether he wears a condom. If he refuses a condom, the sex workers will comply, rather than risk losing the client or getting beaten or raped. Many of these men are from neighboring countries and don't speak the national language of Hindi and are unaware about HIV/AIDS and STIs. The men who do know about HIV/AIDS often assume that infection comes from the female sex workers. They believe they eliminate their risk by having sex with other men. So instead of females, they often seek out the services of transsexual sex workers thinking it is impossible to contract HIV through anal or oral sex. Since homosexuality is looked down upon in India, the social stigma is huge and this behavior is kept on the down low.
Dharavi has one of the largest condensed areas of HIV/AIDS infections and is a primary location for some of YouthAIDS educational outreach, too. YouthAIDS depends on its VAT (Visibility, Accessibility, Touch) Team to capture the attention of targeted groups. The VAT Team essentially concentrates on the alleviation of stigmas and negative predispositions related to sex and condoms. They employ mixed-media strategies, infotainment, and a spirited approach to increase awareness. Dharavi also houses eight Key Clinics (the clinics YouthAIDS funds to provide health services to sex workers, their children, and clients). These clinics test and treat the various STIs, including HIV/AIDS. Key Clinic accessibility is necessary, but the challenge is often making the people aware of the Key Clinics availability and getting them through the door. We are here to witness how this is done.
As we near Dharavi, I can already see examples of the surrounding poverty. There are makeshift "homes" on the sidewalk, one after another, made of scraps of wood, plastic, and random pieces of steel. Through small entryways, I can see men and women lying on the bare dirt inside, keeping cool from the hot morning sun. Filth litters the sidewalk and gutter. I see a small child, naked and dirty, squat and defecate on the sidewalk next to the road. There are no adults nearby.
I look out my window and see Dharavi ahead of me. I am overwhelmed at the vision of miles of corrugated steel, garbage, cow dung, and cement that make up the foundation of this little city. We get out of the car and are directed toward a dark alley and told to be careful as we descend through the dirt and muck. The alley opens into what is literally a garbage dump, a few women in saris pick through the debris while a small group of children play with a piece of Styrofoam.
The women look at us curiously, but the children smile and wave. This part of Dharavi is built directly over a sewage pipeline. The smell is a mixture of piss, shit, propane and dirt, but I could also smell Marsala, and realized someone close by was making tea. We were led through the narrow walkway of a street and shown a gala. I could see men working tirelessly squatting together on the dirt floor in a dark, 8x8-foot space. There were men, women, and children everywhere living 8-15 people in a single room. The YouthAIDS program managers pointed out various brothels where women were sitting looking bored and hot. I asked about the water supply and was shown a cloudy gray stagnant pool that, according to the program manager, was filled with typhoid as well as other diseases. He told me that the people here had built immunity to these diseases, but that I would probably die if drank it myself. He told me that they eat, drink, and bathe with it, and—more often than not—use it as a public toilet.
As we walk through what seems like a labyrinth of debris, wood, and steel, I hear a small, high-pitched laugh coming from behind me. I turn to see a filthy little girl, wearing a blue dress way to large for her tiny frame, smiling brightly at us. It only takes me a moment to recognize that she is physically and mentally disabled. This moment catches me off guard. I struggle to center my emotions as I hold her gaze in mine.
I have a boyfriend, Al, who has three children that I love very dearly. I have had the privilege to watch them grow into beautiful young adults over the last 6 and a half years. His oldest child, Sophie, is severely disabled, similarly to the little girl in blue. I know well what measures have been taken for Al, his ex-wife, and a team of medical professionals, to keep Sophie alive and healthy all these years. Without access to proper care, I am desperately aware of this innocent child’s fate.
When I decided to come to India, I made a commitment not to impose my level of comfort, belief systems, politics, or perceptions of right or wrong onto anyone or anything. I came here to learn, and to observe this culture and its people as is, but my feelings of outrage overwhelmed me in that moment. How can any government allow its people to suffer this way? All people should have access to food, clean water, and health care! How can a culture, so steeped in spirituality and religion, live in such prejudice, neglect, ignorance, discrimination, and abuse? Looking into the girl's vacant eyes I felt anger swell in my heart at a God who could let any of His children suffer in this way, in such a horrible place. I felt the sermon of "unfair" begin to bubble in my heart.
Forcing myself to stop judging, I remember to take some deep breaths. My body begins to relax as I close my eyes and do what I always do when I don't understand something. I pray to God. When I open my eyes again, the girl is still grinning, so I smile back at her beautiful face and offer her a blessing straight from my heart. I reach out to touch the hem of her blue skirt, bowing my head in gratitude. There are teachers everywhere.
As I walk away, I silently affirm my commitment to continue being a voice for those without one. It's action and compassion, I tell myself, not pity or judgment that will facilitate change. I had to move on.
It's evening and the sun is going down behind the hotel near the Arabian Sea. It is a beautiful evening, balmy and cool. It feels good to be lying in bed writing after this long, full day.
After the yoga class with the commercial sex workers, YouthAIDS Mumbai sat us down and explained that to meet their objectives, they have divided their project into six focal components: Communicating with Sex Workers and their Clients, Promotion and Distribution of Preventative Products, Promotion and Provision of Health-Seeking Services, The MSM (men who have sex with men) Project, The Green Dot Program—working with Injecting Drug Users (IDUs), Center of Excellence, and Efficacy and Empowerment.
We were told that over the next five days we will have an opportunity to experience all seven aspects firsthand through participating in innovative field activities.
The folks at YouthAIDS Mumbai wanted us to understand the challenges of the operation and the population they serve. Most of the men and women are illiterate, so the majority of their educational efforts come through the form of street theater, games, mixed-media activities, and mobile exhibitions. Communication and accessibility are critical elements for the success of their mission.It is important to adapt to the populations they are serving, otherwise they run the risk of alienating the community they desire to reach. Since sex workers and their clients are their most targeted group, YouthAIDS Mumbai have offices in key locations where there are congested numbers of these people gathered in a single area.
Despite the statistic that 60 percent of Mumbai citizens live in slums and 27 percent live below the poverty line, Mumbai is actually a very prosperous city. It attracts many migrant workers. The large presence of single men creates an atmosphere conducive to the emergence and persistence of a profitable sex trade industry. In Mumbai alone there are more than 5,000 brothel-based sex workers seeing about 325,000 clients (the number of sex-workers and their clients is likely much higher, but it is difficult to tally the exact number of independent sex workers and indentured servants (often minors). Approximately 40 percent of migrant workers visit prostitutes. Not surprisingly, this results in the increased transmission and acquisition of HIV/AIDS—especially among women in rural areas. In other words, these men are having unprotected sex with infected prostitutes and then going home to their villages and having unprotected sex with their girlfriends and wives.
Migrant workers are not the only concern. Many of India's thousands of truck drivers also engage in high-risk behaviors, spreading the disease across the country to other sex workers in cities and villages along their route and home to their wives. These women are then 95 percent more likely to give birth to HIV-infected children. (Although, there is an injection, nevirapine, that could spare the newborn, the mother will likely pass on the infection through breastfeeding—which is often the only option mother's here can afford.
One big problem is that, without testing, these men, women, and children don't even know they carry the virus! And if they are aware of HIV/AIDS and suspect they might be at risk, they are often afraid to even visit a local clinic. Most probably couldn't afford the testing price, anyway! Not that it would matter. The men and women in these targeted areas are too poor to even get clean water and food, let alone receive the life-sustaining treatments available in the likelihood of a positive result. This means they will eventually die from AIDS-related illnesses. It's not only a health issue. It's an economic issue, a political issue, a social issue, and an issue of spirit since HIV/AIDS leads to depression, isolation, shame, and hopelessness.
Since there is neither a cure nor a vaccine, the key to halting this crisis is education. Teaching correct and consistent condom use, how, why, and where to get tested, making products, testing, counseling, and treatment available is critical to the YouthAIDS program. To escalate the challenge, they must do it in a way that is non-shaming, alienating, or judgmental.
Upon learning some of the many objectives of YouthAIDS Mumbai, I was anxious to get out into the field to experience first hand the face of this crisis.
I will get my chance. Next, I'm going to Dharavi, the largest slum in all of Asia.
After my experience teaching yoga to commercial sex workers in Mumbai, I feel incapable of dignifying this country; it's people and culture, with the limited words available to me. How do I to tell the story of their lives? Lives that, because of oppression, poverty, over-population, illiteracy, disease, prejudice and hunger are reduced to begging and/or stealing and prostitution for survival. I guess first I must say how grateful I am to God for all of my blessings. I'm thankful for my family and friends and for the support and love I receive. I am consistently empowered because of the support that surrounds me.
I feel compelled to acknowledge my gratitude because I have witnessed the by-product of abandonment, rejection and survival in the group of women I met yesterday—the sex workers who work with YouthAIDS to implement a prevention campaign with brothel based sex workers and their clients. These women have, in spite of their circumstances, chosen to speak up, tell their truths, and work hard to break free from the social stigma that projects shame and hatred onto them. Instead, these beautiful women offer advice and hope and often a hug to other young women of similar paths with a heartfelt intensity that humbles my own efforts.
Mumbai has a population of over 18 million people—5.7 million live with HIV/AIDS. This statistic did not surprise me after I learned that 60 percent of the population lives in slums and 27 percent live below the poverty line. Mumbai also has the largest brothel-based sex industry in India, with over 5,000 sex workers, 45 percent of which have HIV.
YouthAIDS/Mumbai has implemented a synergistic prevention campaign with brothel based sex workers and their clients. Their primary goal is to reduce the incidence of HIV/AIDS in sex workers and their clients. The project focuses on engendering healthy sexual behavior through the empowerment of sex workers, increased risk perception among their clients, and the provision of affordable and accessible preventative products and services.
As sex workers are the most at risk for HIV/AIDS, YouthAIDS works within their system in order to most effectively reach the growing number of woman working as prostitutes in Mumbai. The best way to do this is to educate the more experienced and mature workers to communicate this information among their peers. These women belong to a women's collective called Sanghamitra (a YouthAIDS initiative) and together with another 198 members they work to help increase self-esteem and empowerment among the sex workers, reduce exploitation and stigma, organize community led advocacy and, as a group (as women alone have little, or more correctly, no power) fight for their rights. They also help to educate the younger sex workers about HIV/AIDS, STIs (sexually transmitted infections) and correct and consistent condom use. For their time, energy and access to sex workers, YouthAIDS offers them restitution, and makes available to them (as well as all sex workers and their clients), STI screening and testing, voluntary counseling and services, reproductive, child and general health treatments and ongoing medical monitoring.
During my time with the women, they shared a lot about their lives and their circumstances. I was prepared to hear a lot of shocking stories, but I was stunned when they told me that many village folk (when confronted by hunger, poverty, or superstition) often offer their female children to the Goddess Yelamma to become Devidasi (or hand maidens of God) in exchange for a blessing. When this happens, these girls can never marry because they are now married to the Goddess. Therefore, they are relegated to a life as human cargo for the Indian sex trade industry. When they get older, just after their first periods, they are often given to the temple priest where they then are sold as sexual sacrifice—an offering to the Gods. They are then often sold to a brothel. If they are underage, they become indentured servants (sex slaves) and, because they have no money, are alone, and don't speak the language, they have no choice but to turn to sex work to survive.
I was shocked to learn about the Devidasi, recognizing immediately that this practice relegated these children to a life sentence of prostitution. I found out that 5 of the 11 women in my class were Devidasi. Our conversation became impassioned as the women wanted us to understand that they were not angry with their parents, or their Goddess. They made us understand that because of these offerings, the bad luck within their families was changed and they were certain that their sacrifice was blessed because OTHER people had benefited from Yelamma’s grace. Not one woman in the room held any ill will or blame towards their family or the temple priests for the life they led.
They explained, very practically, that this is certainly not the life they would want for there own daughters, but they appreciated that through this work they were able to take care of themselves and feed, clothe, and educate their children—the most important issue for the women in that room.
The women were direct and showed no regret about their circumstances. They wished that there were more protection for the poor and vulnerable, especially women and children, but did not seem bitter about their lives. They told their stories frankly and without sentimentality.
Then something changed. When I started speaking about the adolescent prostitutes I teach in Los Angeles, the room got very quiet. The women were looking at me with confusion. Suddenly, they all started speaking quickly directly to the translator. I couldn't figure out what I said that created such upheaval. I looked to my left at Surya, a plump, sweet-faced woman who was watching me intently. Her eyes brimmed with tears. I asked her what was wrong. The interpreter explained that the women didn't know there were sex workers anywhere else in the world—especially in America. They thought it only happened in India—only to women like them.
For the first time since I arrived in that room, I could see the shame, sadness, and fear reflected back at me. I could see a lifetime of abuse and neglect. I could feel the pain within them knowing that there were millions of women, repressed, diseased, and alone all over this world.
Naturally, the women wanted to know more about my life in America, too. They asked me a lot of questions. Did I live in a house? Did it snow in America? Was there wheat?
They asked me why my skin was so white while theirs is so dark. I explained about pigmentation. They asked why my hair was so blond. I explained peroxide and Honey Blonde No. 48. They asked me what I grew in my fields. I didn't have the heart to explain that "my field" is a Whole Foods market in Santa Monica the size of a roller skating rink.
Then they asked about my husband and how many children I had . . .
This part did not go so well for me.
I told them that I am not married and have no children. There was an audible gasp in the room. I thought a few of the women might faint when I told them I am 40. I tried to explain that this is my choice, and that I'm OK with it, and maybe one day my boyfriend and I would . . . blah, blah, blah. To them, a woman without a man has no status under the eyes of the law. It was awful, but tolerable.
But a woman without a child? This means I would be spiritually bereft and never know true happiness! This was not OK. They began to counsel me immediately! The women started waving their hands around in the air, speaking over each other in various dialects, and rolling their eyes skyward. Suddenly Malika, the oldest in the group, stopped the group and fixed her gaze on me. She placed her hand over my belly and breathed quietly. After a few moments she announced, not to worry, that I would be pregnant after I left India and would have a child by this time next year. All the women were clearly relieved. She told me that it would be a boy. Everyone clapped for joy. She then told me another boy would follow and then a girl.
I ask her who she thought would be taking care of all these kids? She was not amused. She told me drink warm milk, tumeric, and honey—and to stop using condoms immediately! I told her I would stop using condoms, if she and the other ladies in the room promised me they wouldn’t.
Yesterday began with a drive to the YouthAIDS office located in the Opera District in Mumbai. It is also in the heart of the red-light district, a part of India that I would never have any reason to venture into if I weren't doing this relief work.
We walked through a dark alley and up a flight of stairs to a refreshingly clean and bright office. We were led to another floor where 12 rubber yoga mats were spread on the otherwise bare floor. Clustered together in the center were eight women in brightly colored saris. They were of varying ages—the youngest was about 15 and the oldest was about 50.
Although these women are all commercial sex workers, they are also peer educators for YouthAIDS. (As sex workers are at the highest risk for HIV/AIDS, it is important that YouthAIDS work within their system.) Their stories all vary slightly, but most of these women come from small villages around India and Nepal. They are all illiterate, and they turned to prostitution to avoid poverty and starvation. Some were sent to Mumbai, thinking another kind of work was awaiting them. Others are here because their husbands left them when they got pregnant or because their own mothers were sex workers. They all felt they had no other option.
Once I realized that these women were forthright, I felt comfortable asking them all sorts of questions; from their health status (many were HIV positive) to whether or not they've ever felt loved (yes), and whether they even like sex (no, not particularly).
Malika shared that she lost her virginity at 10, one week after her first period. She was dressed all in white and fed cola laced with whiskey. She woke up soaked in her own blood. No one had explained sex to her so she didn't know what to expect. Sita was sold to a brothel at 16. She could not speak the language and was told she could "buy" her freedom by paying off her debt. Six years later she is still paying. Shruta was abandoned by the man she loved when she was seven months pregnant. Her parents would not help her, so she sold her body in order to take care of herself and her baby. None of these women were aware of HIV/AIDS or STIs when they began. None of them knew condoms existed. All of them were alone in a culture that does not take care of its women. So they were forced to compromise their bodies and spirits.
When I asked them if they'd like to try yoga, they giggled and clapped like little girls—perhaps feeling like they were being naughty or breaking a law. Apparently the practice of yoga doesn't make its way past India's deeply-established tradition of sex and discrimination. Unfortunately, the people who could really benefit from its healing and emancipation properties were denied because of their place in society.
I knew yoga's health benefits might not interest them. And since most of the women are Hindi and devotion is an intrinsic part of their culture, I spoke about how we can use our bodies as an expression of our devotion. I explained how each gesture, including the placement of the hand, the expansion of the lungs, and the turn of the spine, is an offering. I told them that yoga practice is a living ritual and an embodied prayer.
I stood in Tadasana and prepared to demonstrate what I meant. I placed my palms in Namaste and told them that I would offer each movement and every breath in dedication and respect to all of them. I prayed out loud and asked God to protect them on their journey. I asked may they always be safe from harm and know joy and peace in their hearts forever. I could feel them watch me as I demonstrated Suryanamaskara B (Sun Salutation B) and I moved slowly, and with as much grace as I could pull forth, to make my body a living prayer for them. My own heart swelled in gratitude for that moment. I was aware of the gift I was given and I felt honored as I glided through such old and familiar movements, yet made brand new with the intention that I had set upon them. They clapped when I was done and bowed gently in Namaste with gratitude for my offering.
Then, I asked them to go to their mats.
Teaching yoga to heavy-set, middle age women in saris with an interpreter is something that should never be witnessed publicly. Hair was flying out of buns, bracelets were jangling, saris unraveling, and red Bindi marks smudging across foreheads. We all played and laughed as they tried to do what I asked of them. It was an absolute mess!
I asked them to stand in Tadasana with their hands in Namaste. I told them that I would lead them in a Sun Salutation and asked them to dedicate it to a young girl who needs some love. Perhaps a daughter, or a friend, or another sex worker who was ill, scared, or alone. The room fell quiet and the women prayed silently, and together they moved their bodies, no longer thick and ungraceful, but slowly, elegantly, as though presenting the most sacred of gifts. Seeing them move so reverently, aligned with God and each other, reminded me what yoga is really about: connection.
Once they were in Savasana (Corpse Pose), I went to each one and adjusted them as lovingly as I could. I wanted them to feel a touch that was not invasive or sexual. A touch that had no other agenda other than service and love. I prayed over each one and felt my heart open in gratitude. I could feel their bodies, so over-used and tired, relax in my hands.
After Savasana, we sat together in meditation. I could hear the sounds of India outside the window, but everything inside that room was deep and still. We placed our palms in Namaste and we prayed together for peace and for the end of poverty. We prayed for tolerance and for the end of violence. We prayed for their clients, that they become educated and less stubborn. We prayed that new sex workers would stay safe and be willing to learn. We prayed for a cure. And we prayed for ourselves, that we all remain in service to the great Goddess, and to each other—to remember that the Goddess dwells within. We prayed to remember that we're all holy and must live each day in glorious self-respect and unwavering love.
After the prayer we all looked at one another and smiled. We were sisters beyond border, race or religion. With our palms still together, we bowed our heads, feeling the power of Namaste, we honored the light within, and beyond.
I asked them if they had any questions? "Yes," one said. "Can I hug you?"
What is it about sex workers and hugging?
"Of course!!" I said, and one by one we hugged and kissed each other. The women kept stroking my hair and face and giving me so much love! I kissed and fawned over them in return. It was incredible. Somewhere between Downward Dog and Triangle Pose, I became their adopted daughter. It was beautiful.
I arrived in India late last night and was greeted by thick, muggy air, the blaring horns of 10,000 taxis, stray, hungry dogs, and an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the journey that I am embarking on. I am here to visit the YouthAIDS programs that have been established in Mumbai, Delhi, and Jaipur. YouthAIDS actually has programs set up in 22 states throughout India, but we are only visiting the areas that are at the highest risk. The purpose of this trip is two-fold. First to raise awareness about HIV among those most at risk including commercial sex workers, their clients, MSM's (men who have sex with men), and IDU's (intravenous drug user's). We are also here to engage the corporate sector, U.S. and Indian companies that have Indian interests, to continue educating them about raising awareness within their industries about social responsibility, taking a stronger role in communicating the crisis to their employees (especially the migrant workers), and to continue raising money to support organizations like YouthAIDS. Each day we will be traveling around these various cities observing and participating in the different programs. These programs will include visiting HIV prevention and client intervention programs, wellness clinics for sex workers, rural birthing centers, public hospitals, peer education and brothel programs, as well as, voluntary counseling and testing centers. We will also be seeing street theatre geared towards the illiterate, meeting the traveling physicians that are permitted to see women in brothels whom are not allowed to leave (sex slaves), and experience the social marketing of condoms, behavior change communications and help lines.
To prepare for this trip, it was important for me to understand how the HIV/AIDS crisis has affected the Indian culture. Considering the countrywide poverty, I wasn't at all surprised to know that the statistics are staggering, especially for young women. Kate Roberts, the founder of YouthAIDS, explained that the "Inequities, driven by overwhelming poverty in India, affect both male and female children. Yet cultural traditions, scant economic resources, and limited opportunities marginalize young girls. Young boys have better access to health care, nutrition and education. Gender bias is reinforced throughout adulthood as men retain economic and political power."
It is common knowledge that the women in India are often a disenfranchised group, without status or rights. When marriage or work opportunities are not available, some women turn to prostitution to avoid starvation. Because of my background working with prostitutes, I'm excited that we will be engaging directly with commercial sex workers and their clients. The "trucker route" is one of the fastest ways that HIV/AIDS is spreading throughout India, and women, on a global scale, are at a much greater risk for infection. Considering that 60 percent of the population that contracts AIDS will be women, it is important that we make them aware that there are measures to be taken to protect themselves and prevent further infection.
Here are some of the facts that I gathered to give you a better understanding of the crisis as it is affecting India and her people:
- 1,080,264,388: Population of India (July 2005 est.).
- 5.7 million: Estimated number of people living with HIV by the end of 2005.
- 0.9 percent: Estimated percentage of adults living with HIV/AIDS by the end of 2003.
- 1.6 million: Estimated number of women (ages 15-49) living with HIV/AIDS by the end of 2005
- 270,000-680,000: Estimated number of deaths due to AIDS during 2005
India has among the highest number of persons living with HIV/AIDS in the world today, although the overall prevalence remains low. Some states experience a generalized epidemic with the virus transmitted from high-risk groups into the general population. A major challenge is to strengthen and decentralize the program to the state and district levels to enhance commitment, coverage and effectiveness.
Risk and Vulnerability
Several factors put India in danger of experiencing a rapid spread if effective prevention and control measures are not scaled up and expanded throughout the country. These risk factors include:
Unsafe Sex and Low Condom Use: In India, sexual transmission is responsible for 84 percent of reported AIDS cases. HIV-prevalence rates are highest among sex workers and their clients, injecting drug users, and men who have sex with men (many of whom are married). When surveyed, 70 percent of commercial sex workers in India reported that their main reason for not using of condoms was because their customers objected.
Migration and Mobility: Migration for work for extended periods of time takes migrants away from the social environment provided by their families and community. This can place them outside the usual normative constraints and thus more likely to engage in risky behavior. Concerted efforts are needed to address the vulnerabilities of the large migrant population.
Injecting Drug Use (IDU): Studies indicate that many drug users are switching from inhaling to injecting drugs. This phenomenon is more localized in the Northeastern states of India, and injecting drug users show sharp increases in HIV prevalence. Forty-one percent of IDUs in a national survey reported injecting with used needles or syringes. Of those who cleaned their needles and syringes, only three percent used an effective method such as alcohol, bleach, or boiling water. Appropriate strategies are also needed to address the double impact of drug use and unsafe sexual practices.
Low Status of Women: Infection rates have been on the increase among women and infants in some states. As in many other countries, unequal power relations and the low status of women, as expressed by limited access to human, financial, and economic assets, weakens the ability of women to protect themselves and negotiate safer sex, thereby increasing vulnerability.
Widespread Stigma: Stigma towards people infected with HIV/AIDS is widespread. The misconception that AIDS only affects men who have sex with men, sex workers, and injecting drug users strengthens and perpetuates existing discrimination. The most affected groups, often marginalized, have little or no access to legal protection of their basic human rights. Addressing the issue of human rights violations and creating an enabling environment that increases knowledge and encourages behavior change are thus extremely important to the fight against AIDS.
After reading these sobering statistics perhaps you have a better understanding of the gratitude I'm feeling at being able to participate and serve this culture. My own life was transformed by the gift of yoga. Everything that I am and intend to be is directly influenced by some of the great Indian teachers and philosophers including Pantanjali, Gandhi, Sri BKS Iyengar, Sri Pattabhi Jois, Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Amritanadamayi (Ammaji) and Neem Baba Karoli, to name only a few. Their words and the actions they've taken in their lives have impacted me as a humanist. Through their teachings I am committed to manifesting positive thoughts into global action, and to try to make a difference in the world and to the people whom inhabit it. It is the traditions of the Indian culture that taught me worship and devotion, and the words of these great beings that taught me to respect and celebrate God, life, and other human beings. The yogic philosophy, "we are all one" is the understanding I choose to live by, and to be able to practice this belief in the culture that inspired it is a privilege. It is this opportunity to be of service to these men and women, the indirect decedents of my teachers, that I am entirely grateful for and I intend to do whatever I can to make a difference.
I'm very excited to return to India. It's been 10 years since I last visited. I spent three months there in 1997 studying with Sri K Pattabhi Jois and spending time at the Sri Aurobindo ashram. I love the Indian culture. It can be a mad and frenetic place at times. Maybe it's the Jersey girl in me, but I experience a sense of calm and inspiration in the chaos. I am also impassioned by the myriad examples of Holy ritual that can be seen on a littered street corner, in the overcrowded storefronts, and on the cement stoops and roadsides in front of many homes. It's like a cultural temple, or living prayer, and my heart thrives for the respect of the sacred celebrated there, and how it permeates most aspects of Indian life. Yet, it is certainly a culture of extreme duality. As opulent and rich as the culture is, I am certain I will still be shocked at the rampant poverty that exists there amongst the temples, shrines and palaces. I don't think I can ever get used to seeing the overwhelming suffering; including starvation, homelessness, physical and mental disabilities and disease that exists on the streets in the people and the animals. It's impossible to witness the men, women, and children begging for food and money without feeling compelled to do something. One of the reasons I am venturing to India at this moment is to witness first-hand the results of the compromise that desperation brings: prostitution. But more on that later. . .
The last time I visited India I got very, very ill. It only lasted one day, but it made a lasting impression on me. I have taken precautions this time and have brought with me Agrisept, which is citrus seed extract. I will introduce that to the water that I drink each day. I also bought Pro-biotics, Vitamin C and mass amounts of Chinese herbs, including a Sunrider product called Fortune Delight that I have been drinking for eight years. I drink at least six glasses a day and am convinced that this tea has helped keep me healthy over the years. I also got inoculated. I had a very hard time with this. I had only wanted the Hepatitis A vaccine, but because this trip is bringing me into rural areas, orphanages and brothels, I was told that it was necessary to tolerate the gamut. I tried everything to convince the doctor that I didn't need the Polio or Tetanus shots, not to mention the malaria pills! Short of walking out of the office, I tried, unsuccessfully, to explain that I intended to strengthen my system homeopathically and the shots were unnecessary. He saw things differently and I left his office defeated, my arms sore and feeling like I betrayed my body by introducing these poisons into it. I'm sure ultimately it was probably a good idea, considering some of the areas I'll be visiting, but taking all those shots was difficult for me. I still haven't begun the first round of my malaria pills. It's my little act of rebellion.
I'd like to bring you back to how the relationship between Ashley, YouthAIDS, and me all came together.
After the conversation I had with Ashley, I wanted to do something to support her efforts and the dedication of YouthAIDS. She had informed me that over 93 percent of every dollar YouthAIDS raised financed the many facilities and programs YouthAIDS' parent organization, PSI, established around the world. I couldn't help but think about the power, influence, and resources in my own community. I knew through Yoga Journal that there were now 20 million people practicing yoga, and that it had become a billion dollar industry. Many grass root and corporate businesses were developing yoga products because the demand was there, and with the demand is, of course, profit.
I've been teaching for 15 years, and I’ve been a traveling teacher for eight of those, teaching in the U.S. and abroad. I'm very aware of how yoga has grown and that it has become a part of our popular culture. Some purists in the yoga world have a problem with this growth. They see it as a trend, the corporate involvement as proof that the yoga is becoming diluted, up for public consumption, used for profit and commercialism; its message being exploited as tag lines to sell the newest gear. I can appreciate the concern, but I've always believed that yoga is too powerful to be swallowed by the Goliath of big business. I have always felt excited that yoga has been penetrating corporate consciousness and feel positive about the far-reaching effects.
It is ultimately these big businesses that I will appeal too to raise money and utilize their marketing power and considerable resources to support YouthAIDS.
Over the years, many companies, both grass root and corporate, have wanted me to wear their products when I travel. Large companies have sponsored me in the past, but aligning myself with these organizations for personal gain no longer interests me. But I couldn't help thinking there was an opportunity to be created that could benefit everyone. What if I worked with some of these companies to develop product that could support YouthAIDS? What if the product had a message and the sales of such a product could be used to raise both money and awareness? What if we could align ourselves with conscious minded businesses and create something where everyone benefits? Ashley and I started dialoguing about the potential of creating a campaign targeted specifically to the yoga community, the people and businesses. It occurred to me that I could use my national platform as a teacher to discuss the AIDS issue and encourage the students to support YouthAIDS by purchasing YouthAIDS-related products from these companies. This way, we all get to contribute and serve.
It was on a retreat at the Feathered Pipe Ranch in Montana where Ashley and I decided to call it "Off the Mat, Into the World," and got busy planning our first collaboration.
We contacted Gaiam International, who agreed to sponsor the first project. They made 100 percent cotton organic t-shirts with our slogan on it. I would wear the shirt, talk about the campaign, explaining to my students that it only takes 10 dollars to save the life of a child and the with the purchase of the shirt they would be saving two kids! The shirts sold and it inspired us to begin thinking bigger.
In the three years since "Off the Mat" was launched, we have worked with a variety of different companies on products, including Yoga, Tribe and Culture, Energy Muse Jewelry, Be.Ology, Suca Wear, and Luna Bar, raising thousands and thousands of dollars. Many schools around the country have been joining in by hosting their own "Off the Mat" event and we also host special benefit events each year at various Yoga Journal conferences with special highlighted guest performers (this year Edie Brickell in Estes Park and Caroline Myss at Grand Geneva). All this to benefit the fight against AIDS.
Being involved this way has helped create a forum in my teaching where I can dialogue about the importance of service and encourage people to get involved. My hope through this project is to help the millions of young people affected by the HIV/AIDS crisis, while also teaching people how to develop the necessary skills to become leaders in their own communities and taking on the responsibility of creating outreach programs in their own towns and cities.
Our goal is to raise a million dollars and with the help and support of the yoga community, this number seems very reachable. The yoga community is an altruistic culture of people who are working hard to practice living in truth and love, with respect for all beings and the environment we live in. My intention is to harness these heartfelt intentions and activate them into the world. My hope that by unifying the efforts, money, energy, and prayers of both private citizens and the commercial sector we can help combat the global AIDS crisis and help save the lives of millions of children as a result.
In 2005, Ashley and I were given the "Conscious Humanitarian" award from the Sacred Sounds of the Art Foundation. That same year YouthAIDS asked me to be involved with their organization on a more official level by becoming their National Yoga Ambassador, an honor that I feel privileged to hold.
Each year Ashley and the representatives of YouthAIDS travel abroad to visit countries were the AIDS pandemic is most critical. Ashley visits representatives, political and social leaders to talk about the crisis, as well as visiting YouthAIDS sponsored projects in the field. This year they chose to visit India and invited me to journey with them and experience this international crisis in a culture that has such an influence on my own life. I'm thrilled to have this opportunity to serve YouthAIDS and the Indian culture, and witness how this devastating disease affects a culture and its people, and see what is being done to create change.
When Ashley came home we got together and she told me about the brothels in Nairobi, where commercial sex workers work three and four in a room separated only by a sheet. They often charge $1 for sex with a condom and $2 for sex without. She explained that AIDS has changed Sub-Saharan Africa into a continent of orphans. We spoke of the local shame, the global denial, and the continued worldwide poverty that makes it impossible for people to get the necessary life extending drugs. In developing nations (as well as here in the U.S.), hunger and poverty often force our children to degrade and sell their bodies in order to survive or feed their families. These millions of children are not being educated on how to protect themselves and others from HIV/AIDS. Mass spreading is an inevitable result.
Here are some of the things that I learned that I think you should know:
- We are in the third decade of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
- AIDS could claim up to 100 million lives worldwide by 2020 if nothing changes.
- At this rate, AIDS will be the worst epidemic in human history.
- HIV is preventable.
- The HIV/AIDS epidemic has already claimed over 20 million lives.
- An estimated 39.4 million people worldwide are living with HIV/AIDS.
- HIV is the leading cause of death worldwide, among those ages 15-59.
- 12 million young people aged 15 to 24 are now living with HIV/AIDS.
- In 2004 - almost 5 million people were newly infected with HIV & more than 3 million people died.
- More than a million children under the age of 15 died from AIDS in 2004.
- Every day 14,000 people contract HIV—ten people per minute.
- Worldwide, most people living with HIV are unaware they are infected.
- 50% of those newly infected with HIV today are young people, between 15 and 24 years old.
- 64% of those young people are girls - in some countries, infection rates are up to 6 times higher among young women than young men.
- 15 million children living today have been orphaned due to AIDS, having lost one or both parents to the epidemic.
- Almost 7,000 young adults become infected with HIV every day.
AIDS kills one child every minute.
Ashley passionately described YouthAIDS and the powerful initiatives that they were activating around the world, including voluntary counseling and testing services and reproductive health programs. In 2006, they managed to avert hundreds of thousands of cases of HIV/AIDS, a direct result of their programs and efforts. In 2006 Oprah Winfrey named YouthAIDS one of the top ten charities in the country.
That conversation with Ashley spoke to something deep within me and I knew I needed to participate in some way to make a difference in the lives of young people around the world . . .
Years after my first experience with the shelter, I was standing in a Chicago airport when I received a call from a friend, Michelle, who was Ashley Judd’s assistant. She called on behalf of Ashley, a student at that time, who was in Asia. Michelle told me Ashley was working in the field as a global ambassador for the HIV/AIDS initiative YouthAIDS. YouthAIDS is an action-driven, non-profit initiative of a much larger global health organization, PSI, whose main interest is to protect, educate, and provide products, information, and services to young people worldwide affected by the HIV/AIDS pandemic. They work to generate funds and raise awareness to prevent the spread of HIV amongst today’s youth. I was informed that 50 percent of those newly infected with HIV/AIDS were young people, between the ages of 15-24. Most didn’t know they carried the disease. Ashley was working with YouthAIDS in impoverished areas where the pandemic is most evident. She was holding babies with AIDS in orphanages, and speaking with young prostitutes working in makeshift brothels that were nothing more than hung plastic sheets on the sidewalks of small impoverished villages. She was feeling overwhelmed by the poverty, ignorance, and abuse. Ashley knew that I worked with young prostitutes in the U.S. and wanted to know if I had any words of support or wisdom for her.
I shared my experiences and offered my humble suggestions, but I thought a lot about Ashley and those children after that call. Many of the kids at Children of the Night had been infected by HIV/AIDS, but because of our national resources, were learning to live with the disease. I was aware that there is no vaccine and no cure, but didn’t consider that the life-extending drugs that are available to us in this country are far out of reach for most of the 40 million people who currently live with HIV. I ignorantly had believed that our governments were doing more to eliminate this disease, but Ashley’s experience made me critically aware that this was an International emergency. AIDS, Ashley later told me, was not a cause, but a crisis.
I wanted to understand more.
I’m on a plane heading to New York for the first part of this journey to India. While I’m in town I’ll be teaching and saying goodbye to my family. The former is always a joy for me and will give me a chance to get grounded before the 16-hour flight to Mumbai. The latter will be more difficult. Two and a half years ago my father was diagnosed with kidney cancer. Although I travel for work, I have always managed to arrange my schedule to be a fairly quick plane ride to their home in northern New Jersey. Not being as available to my family will be challenging, but this opportunity to go to India and work with YouthAIDS is truly a dream come true for me. To be able to experience, observe, and work alongside an organization completely dedicated to preventing the spread of HIV is an opportunity that I feel so blessed to participate in.
The intention of this blog is to invite you on this journey to India with me. I’d like you experience through me this incredible country, it’s people and politics, and how the AIDS pandemic has affected the culture. I’ll share what is being done to educate and heal the population from this devastating, yet preventable, disease.
Before I get into the various work that I will be doing in India with YouthAIDS, I feel it’s important you understand how it is that I came to be involved with YouthAIDS:
In 1999 I applied to teach yoga at a shelter in Van Nuys called Children of the Night. This non-profit shelter is the only organization in Northern America that focuses its energy on educating and rehabilitating adolescent prostitutes. My job was to teach yoga and meditation to boys and girls between the ages of 11-17. Although these children have suffered extreme trauma as they have been severely sexually and emotionally abused and have all gone through the prison system, I felt confident that I could approach them with empathy and understanding—rather than sympathy or judgment.
What a journey that was for me. I was so naïve then, thinking I could walk into a room of teenagers and teach them skills that could transform their lives in the same way my life was changed through yoga. They did what many teenagers do, high risk or not: They challenged, questioned, argued and ignored! I learned quickly that life on the street exposed these children to rape, violence, unwanted pregnancy, abandonment, desperation, loneliness, drug abuse and sexually transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS. They were distrustful, mouthy and often disrespectful. I had hoped that through yoga they could begin to develop a safe and intimate relationship with their bodies. I had hoped that getting them to breathe would give them an opportunity to relax or even experience peace of mind. I had hoped I could provide spiritual insights that would inspire and uplift their consciousness. Instead, they would rebel by laughing and goofing off, completely uninterested in what I was suggesting to them. Some days I would leave the shelter after a particular futile attempt at teaching yoga and cry at my inability to reach and connect to them. How arrogant of me to believe that I could walk into their lives and with a few breathing and moving techniques and change their nature and circumstance, yet I continued showing up, again and again . . .
Then one day, months later, I walked through the door, anticipating the eye rolls and distain that I was normally greeted with, when one young girl jumped out of her chair, ran to me, and threw her arms around my waist, hugging me with a level of intensity that was almost overwhelming. This young girl had been on the street since she was 12. Her parents turned her out when she was younger than that to help pay for their drug habit. She had dozens of small, sharp scars down each arm from cutting herself, the survival skill she developed as a way to disconnect from the emotional pain. These small, raw gashes competed with the various gang tattoos and burn marks that also littered her skin. She was also HIV positive. I returned her embrace with equal enthusiasm. When I unpeeled her from me, I looked up to notice a few of the other girls standing in a line waiting for their hug. I eagerly obliged! After that, I would need to arrive ten minutes early to allocate ’hug time,’ as it became a ritual for all the children. This was a big deal, because these children were not used to being touched, or touching, in an intimate, but non-sexual way. It meant that somehow the kids trusted me.
I realized that what was going to transform these young people was not necessarily the asanas, or the breathing techniques, or the mantras. What was opening their broken and betrayed hearts to me was the same thing that can open all hearts—love. Just by showing up and sharing time and energy with them, they began to feel recognized and cared for. Just by being present to them, they became present to me. Just by seeing the light in them, they reflected that same divinity back. A mighty yoga began happening to all of us. We began playing, relating, visualizing and connecting. We shared our stories and spoke out loud our truths without shame, realizing that we were all more alike than different. I even managed to get them to practice asana without complaining! Personally, I experienced a yoga that was more profound then any advanced pose I have ever attempted. I learned the power of giving, and that it is compassion that heals, truth that reaches, and love that transforms. Those children changed me. They taught me levels of commitment, humility, and patience that I was incapable of prior to meeting them. Just when I wanted to run, I learned to wait. Just when I wanted to control, I learned to surrender. Just when I wanted to fight, I learned how to serve. Being of service to them, holding a space of genuine concern and care became my yoga practice, and set the course of a new direction in my life.
India is one of the largest and most populated countries in the world with over one billion inhabitants. Of this number, at least five million are living with HIV. According to some estimates, India has a greater number of people living with HIV than any other nation in the world.
HIV emerged later in India than it did in many other countries, but this has not limited its impact. Infection rates soared throughout the 1990s, and have increased further in recent years. The crisis continues to deepen, as it becomes clearer that the epidemic is affecting all sectors of Indian society. The HIV epidemic is misunderstood and stigmatised among the Indian public. People living with HIV have faced violent attacks; been rejected by families, spouses and communities; even refused medical treatment.
Without a cure, prevention is our only power.
Join Seane Corn, YouthAIDS Ambassador, and Ashley Judd, YouthAIDS Global Ambassador, as they travel throughout India with YouthAIDS to highlight prevention programs, outline solutions and partnerships and most importantly, deliver a message of hope. Seane will document her experiences, reactions and thoughts on this trip and share them.
YouthAIDS, an education and prevention initiative of PSI, uses media, pop culture, music, theater, and sports to stop the spread of HIV and AIDS. It reaches 600 million young people in more than 60 countries with life-saving messages, products, services and care. For more information on what you can to do to prevent the spread of HIV please visit www.youthaids.org.
Seane Corn, a leading spokesperson for yoga and activism, has been featured in numerous magazines, news segments, and commercials. Named the National Yoga Ambassador for YouthAIDS, she created the "Off the Mat, Into the World" campaign and received teh 2005 Conscious Humanitarian Award for her efforts and dedication to service.
Join Seane Corn, YouthAIDS Ambassador, and Ashley Judd, YouthAIDS Global Ambassador, virtually as they travel throughout India with YouthAIDS. Together, they will highlight prevention programs, outline solutions, and deliver a message of hope.
YouthAIDS, an education and prevention initiative of PSI, uses media, pop culture, music, theater, and sports to stop the spread of HIV and AIDS. It reaches 600 million young people in more than 60 countries with life-saving messages, products, services and care. For more information on what you can to do to prevent the spread of HIV please visit www.youthaids.org.
What is your favorite time of day to practice?