Today we were taken to another office to see a program known as "The Helpline." This particular project has been completely funded by The Elton John Foundation and is the binding component of an all-inclusive, effective prevention campaign. The Saadhann Mumbai HIV/AIDS Helpline is an anonymous, confidential service that provides its callers with technical and correct information related to HIV, STIs and sexual health, and motivates clients to determine their HIV status. In addition, trained counselors provide callers who engage in risky behavior with risk-reduction plans. The helpline provides referrals to health and social services and care and support facilities. The Helpline has received over 66,000 calls to date.
This program is critical as it provides a safe haven for people to inquire about information and services in an anonymous way, allowing them more freedom to express and ask the question pertinent to him/her without fear or shame. The room is small and there were four counselors taking calls at any given time.
I was impressed with the humanity and sensitivity of the counselors. They spent a lot of time with each caller, calmly asking relevant questions and providing thoughtful guidance.
Then, we were brought to a VCT (Voluntary Counseling and Testing) Center in Mumbai's red-light district specifically marketed to the clients of sex workers. VCT Centers offer confidential, affordable, accessible counseling and testing services. This center has seen over 15,000 clients.
After this we went to an area in another red-light district with a large population of transgender sex workers. YouthAIDS Mumbai's peer educators had a booth where they were distributing information on safe sex and correct condom use. Their information was specifically targeting MSM, or men who have sex with men. The MSM initiative targets men who are gay or bi-sexual, have sex with trans gendered and transsexual men and eunuchs. Eunuchs are a small population of castrated men who live their lives as women. Ostracized by their families and communities, these disenfranchised human beings often dress as women. They earn their living by begging and becoming sex workers.
The Mumbai Red Light District (RLD) Project addresses the HIV/AIDS epidemic in female sex workers and their clients. To complement this effort, PSI/YouthAIDS initiated an intervention with male sex workers and other men who have sex with men (MSM) in strategically identified hotspots within the red-light area. PSI/YouthAIDS has taken a holistic approach to impede the spread of HIV/AIDS by expanding its interventions to address the more concealed male-to-male sex in an area known for female sex workers.
Rather than focus on issues of gay identity, PSI/YouthAIDS focuses on health concerns and provides MSM with information through a team of outreach workers, both gay and heterosexual. Extensive sensitization and trainings for both outreach and clinic staff have helped make MSM clients more comfortable to speak openly about their health problems.
Homosexuality is a huge taboo in the Indian culture, and men who engage run the risk of stigmatization, humiliation, and even imprisonment because homosexuality is illegal (Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, threatens prison for up to 10 years for "carnal intercourse against the order of nature"). I found out that there is a not a community within Mumbai for gay men who are comfortably and happily "out" with their sexuality. Familial and societal acceptance towards homosexuality, according to the YouthAIDS peer educators, just does not exist in India. Homosexuality is a hidden behavior and gay men keep their lives and activities on the down low. Sadly, this perpetuates living in lies, shame, and confusion and the need to explore their natural sexual impulses in secretive ways. The MSM Initiative is a program that addresses the needs of this population and provides them with information and services denied to them by other organizations because of the social stigma attached to homosexuality.
I hope this gives you a sense of what these grassroot programs do and how they work together to support a unified effort of outreach, education, action, and change. These efforts are made possible only by funding.
In the U.S., YouthAIDS works tirelessly at a cause-related marketing approach. They align with the commercial sector to create national ad campaigns and products to raise awareness and money. Kate Roberts (who founded YouthAIDS) is brilliant at creating successful campaigns and has worked with companies like ALDO Shoes, Levi's, Hello Kitty, and Kiehl's, to name only a few. The campaigns are edgy, informative and impactful and have raised millions of dollars that support these grassroots initiatives in India and in 70 countries worldwide.
After three years of raising awareness and money within the yoga community for YouthAIDS, it's incredibly satisfying to witness how and where the money we've raised is spent and, most importantly, connect to the people who are benefiting.