Paula Alvarado, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies
The South Asia region, home to half the world's poor, hosts an estimated 2.67 million people infected with HIV. Stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV and gender inequality remain the two biggest challenges to AIDS prevention in the region.
On 1 December 2008, World AIDS Day, Red Cross and Red Crescent societies throughout the region announced their commitment to the Global Alliance on HIV. In India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka, community-based HIV programmes will be scaled up in an effort that aims to reach more than 1,500,000 vulnerable people, including 400,000 young people, 80,000 people living with HIV and 7,000 sex workers. Myths and misconceptions about people living with HIV are among the biggest challenges facing the region.
After her husband died of AIDS in 2006, Nimantika, a 47-year-old HIV-positive Sri Lankan mother of three, had to leave her husband’s family house where she used to live. Her sister in law used to beat her up and it was made clear that she wasn’t wanted there anymore.
Nimantika is now one of the 52 beneficiaries of the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society outreach programme that is supporting people living with HIV. Funded by the Swedish International Development Agency, the programme provides livelihoods support to people living with HIV through ‘Lanka Plus’, a local NGO.
Nimantika used the first part of the 35,000 LKR (380 Swiss franc) grant she received to start a small grocery stall near her house. She bakes, cooks, and sells her products there.
“I do not feel sick now, and I don’t want to think about being HIV-positive. It’s a way to stay strong,” says Nimantika with a big smile. “I have so much to do with my business, and I feel I can do so much more through the support network.”
She now lives with her children in a new community where no one knows about her HIV status. Peer support and counselling from ‘Lanka Plus’ has helped her to move on with her life.
A place to go
“I feel better when I come here,” says Kavita, an HIV-positive casual labourer, who is undergoing treatment through an Indian Red Cross project at Thambaram Hospital in the southern city of Chennai, Tamil Nadu in India. “They understand my problem.”
The project, which has been running since July 2004, provides food and hygiene items to people living with HIV, as well as counselling for them and their families. The hospital has 16 wards for HIV patients, 12 for people with tuberculosis, an intensive care unit, a children’s ward and a palliative care ward.
“The counselling takes place individually and in groups. We devote more time to people suffering from depression. It has helped many patients get back to their normal lives and to be accepted by their families,” explains Sumiti, a counsellor working at the hospital.
The mountains of Nepal are witness to a colourful display of wall paintings and posters that tell the story of people living with HIV. High rates of migration from rural Nepal coupled with low levels of education have led the Nepal Red Cross Society to run an HIV awareness and prevention programme which also aims to address stigma and discrimination issues surrounding the disease that tend to prevail in these communities.
“These visibility products have played an important part in creating better awareness of HIV and for its prevention,” believes Karuna Shreshta, health director of the Nepal Red Cross Society. “It is the local support groups who look at resources and make plans at the community level.” He adds.
Lanka Plus, Thambaram Hospital and the graphic display are just a few successful examples of the regional approach in South Asia to help people with HIV and local communities overcome cultural and social barriers and taboos.