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World AIDS Day - Meri Pehchan: preventing HIV/AIDS in India

About 89 per cent of the 4 million people living with HIV/AIDS in India belong to the most productive age group, those between the ages of 15-49 years. The pandemic has become a major threat to the world of work and immediate efforts are needed to protect some 400 million workers in the country from the deadly virus. But AIDS awareness in some parts of India is a problem because talk about sex is taboo and the audience is often illiterate and uneducated. Puppet shows are an effective way to get the message out...

Article | 30 November 2005

NEW DELHI (ILO Online) - A jolly clown lures an unsuspecting victim into her den where the AIDS demons are waiting for their next prey.

Will it be one of the three youngsters dancing merrily in a party to whom the other two offered a dose of drug through injection which they also take using the same needle? Or Madho who had an accident in the village and needed a blood transfusion? Or Mr. Sharma who is on the way to his rendezvous with a local prostitute?

The puppet show 'Meri Pehchan' highlights the different aspects of HIV/AIDS transmission. A local community group has been using the puppets to shape a message and spread the word about AIDS prevention, especially to local women. Realistic situations are portrayed in an entertaining manner using humorous scenes and familiar incidents with songs from Hindi films.

The puppet show is part of the ILO project "Decent Employment for Rural Women". Apart from training in various skills the project aims to create awareness about health issues like HIV/AIDS. Shows are performed throughout West Delhi, and are a popular draw for a hard-to-reach audience.

"HIV/AIDS is prevalent, but people just didn't know enough about it. It is only through our puppet shows that people have become aware and more interested to learn about it. After the show, people went to our offices to ask us what AIDS is all about...", explains Manvinder Singh, who has been making puppets for 10 years now.

The many migrant workers in the West Delhi area spend a long time without their families and get exposed to risks such as HIV/AIDS. "Our target audience is migrants, for example people from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana who come to town for 5 or 6 months with or without their families", says S.M. Afsar, National Programme Manager.

Truck drivers spend many months on the road and are another target in the awareness campaign... "We don't go home for 10 months at a stretch and sometimes we are tempted to have sex so it is important to know about using condoms and AIDS....", says Ajit, a truck driver.

HIV/AIDS, migration and mobile work

"Truck drivers are among those away from home and family for long periods, often in poor and unpleasant conditions. Most of them are men, living and working in a male dominated culture. As the sex industry is usually readily present at truck stops, drivers avail themselves of the services of sex workers, or have other casual partners on the road", comments Odile Frank, main author of a forthcoming ILO report on "HIV/AIDS and work in a globalizing world" ( Note 1).

The report gives estimates for Thailand where an estimated 87 per cent of truck drivers had occasional relations with sex workers. Similarly, 75 per cent of drivers in India had casual sex on their routes.

But truck drivers are only one of the groups at risk. Besides the jobs in the transport industry that immediately come to mind, including shipping, trucking, the airline industry and railways, there are land-based non-mobile professions that interact constantly with mobile workers, notably port workers.

"Millions of people are on the move in today's world or in contact with those on the move, including travellers, sex workers and workers in the hospitality industry. They also belong to the groups of people being at greater risk of exposing themselves to HIV/AIDS", says Frank.

The new ILO report shows that the HIV/AIDS epidemic is closely linked to many of the aspects of economic globalization.

"The worldwide transmission of AIDS itself can be viewed as part of the process of globalization, through the impact of globalization on the increased movement of people", says Frank. "At the same time, globalization creates opportunities for the accelerated development of life-extending drugs and technologies to tackle HIV/AIDS", she adds, on a more positive note.

While these opportunities have served to reduce transmission and the incidence of new cases in many places, HIV/AIDS has increasingly become a disease of poverty. "For many poor countries, globalization has resulted in anxieties rather than expectations. HIV/AIDS has increased these anxieties and risks", concludes Frank.

Addressing HIV/AIDS in a globalizing world

The ILO report also examines national legislation and international law on human rights related to HIV/AIDS. According to the report, "restricting movement of persons who are HIV-positive is a violation of rights and discriminatory. It is also unnecessary and ineffective".

It is not unusual for migrants to be HIV-negative when they leave their country of origin and to become HIV-positive because of the unfavourable and hostile environment they have to cope with on their migratory journey, the report says.

"UN organizations, specialized institutions and NGO's dealing with HIV/AIDS have long pointed out that restrictions relating to entry or residence based on health issues, including HIV/AIDS, should be applied in a manner that respects the human rights of migrants, including, among others, the right to non-discrimination. An environment that promotes violations of human rights legitimizes stigma and discrimination, which make the impact of HIV greater", says Frank.

According to the report, only measures ensuring the protection and the rights of migrants and eliminating risk factors at all stages of migration, from recruitment to return, will really enable countries to prevent HIV transmission.

The "ILO Code of practice on HIV/AIDS and the world of work" ( Note 2) is so far the only instrument linking law with HIV/AIDS in the world of work, and is widely used to ensure recognition and implementation of rights of migrant workers. The code has been translated into more than 35 languages and disseminated globally: in principle, it is available to governments, workers, employers and their organizations in close to 90 per cent of countries worldwide.

"HIV/AIDS knows no frontiers. Moreover, it is already present in every country of the world. It is therefore essential for States to collaborate and think globally if they wish to efficiently protect their own economies and populations", concludes Odile Frank.

The puppet show 'Meri Pehchan' ends with the puppets worried that one day everyone will know about AIDS and bring the pandemic's rule to an end…

As of 1 July 2005, the ILO is chairing the Committee of Co-sponsoring Organizations (CCO) of UNAIDS. As Chair, the ILO takes the lead role in preparing the UNAIDS Programme Coordinating Board (PCB) meetings and provides support and direction on other issues, including linkages between HIV/AIDS and the ILO's Decent Work Agenda, changing patterns and trends in the world of work, and the social dimensions of globalization.

Note 1

Note 2 - ILO Code of practice on HIV/AIDS and the world of work, International Labour Office, 2001, ISBN 92-2-112561-0.