Thursday, September 11, 2008

A Game Changer in HIV Education

Culturally Sensitive and Scientific Approach to HIV Education

My question, “What would the reaction here in India be if schools taught a culturally sensitive science and fact based approach to sex education”. I had asked the question in all five countries to officials, doctors, and the directors of each organization covered. The responses always extolled the great impetus such an approach could have at removing stigma, creating understanding, and empowering a population with life saving knowledge. However what usually follows is the realization that such programs or practices simply do not take place in large scale. The reason is steeped in taboos stemming from culture, religion, or governmental bureaucracy and no example was more palpable then in India.

Although India is the world’s largest democracy and developing at a pace nearly unforeseen, it still has traditions that some interviewed referred to as “backwards”. Whether it is divorced or widowed women completely ostracized from the community, or raped women thought to be worthless and ill suited for proper marriage, women’s rights is a hard fought battle in India. Furthermore, premarital sex is almost unspeakable and “a big No-No”, which comes across slightly innocent given the provocative nature and displays of sexuality in the highly popular Bollywood scene. Of course it was with this reality that I awaited the answer from the director of the Community Care Center (CCC).

The response, “For god’s sake if you even utter sex education they will chase you out and throw you into the river!” Despite the taboos the organization pursues a course of action. “Call it health education or life education and then go in and teach them whatever you’d like. This is what we do and it works.” The need for HIV education is desperately there. In their 2006-7 “Needs Assessment Study” the Gujarat State Network of Positive People (GSNP+) reported 70% of the 766 people living with HIV interviewed knew nothing of HIV before testing positive. How does one protect himself or herself from a virus they have never heard of - let alone understand how it transmits?

It is corporations’ social responsibility programs, such as the CCC, and non governmental organization, like the GSNP+, that are left with much of the responsibility in educating the population on HIV/AIDS. Through awareness outreach, solidarity programs, and advocacy campaigns the state of Gujarat is slowly showing changes in levels of understanding on HIV. However there may be a game-changer. Whereas my question was only hypothetical, it has now become a reality through Stanford University and the hard work of Piya Sorcar. Their model teaches the issues through facts and a culturally sensitive approach. It absorbs the culture and integrates it into the material without sacrificing the essential messages. Their three point mantra is the foundation everything is built on. The HIV virus spreads from only three mediums: sexual fluids, breast milk, and blood. The beauty of the program is the simple and clear language and the utilization of graphics and media works to both engage the audience and reflect culture. Lastly, it even comes in Indian male and Indian female versions to address some of the hesitancies and sensitivities within the various religious orders within India.

Besides India my research has also taken me from the hills of Rwanda to the golden coast of the United States and the heat of Nicaragua to the temples of Thailand. The potential for’s programs can be tweaked and geared toward each of these countries garnering tangible results. Each country has its own culture and that is the beauty of the program; keep the facts and alter the dressing. Experts talk about the two sides of the HIV/AIDS epidemic as treatment and prevention. Both go hand in hand, especially in developing countries where costs of treatment can be a pressing issue for both patient and government. This computer based model can make a great difference in addressing one of the biggest issues concerning HIV – awareness, prevention, and understanding.

For more blogs about the CCC, GSNP+, or India please go to February and for photos see sidebar.

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