By Diana Coulter
CHANDRAPUR, India, 12 December 2011 – Rushali Gajabhaye hasn’t travelled past the fields, coal mines and cement factories that surround her small village. But the 18-year-old is more sophisticated than most teenagers her age.
Without hesitation, she will stand before other village girls and talk about the importance of safe sex, or spend a few moments demonstrating the proper application of a condom on a plastic model.
In the small, conservative village of Datala in Maharashtra State, these are brave actions. But Rushali is undaunted. In fact, she is proud of her volunteer position with the village’s Red Ribbon Club. Her group is working to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases in her community.
The Red Ribbon Club, part of a programme supported by UNICEF, aims to raise awareness of HIV and AIDS, spread knowledge about prevention, and reduce the stigma and discrimination faced by people living with the disease.
“I want to help my village,” Rushali explains. “It is not difficult to share this information with girls because they are just like me. They want to stay healthy.”
In the beginning, it wasn’t easy, Rushali admits. “People here did gossip about me and they didn’t want to send their daughters to this club.”
It didn’t help that the sarpanch, the village government head, wouldn’t support the club when it started in 2006.
“At first, I did wonder why this programme was necessary in our village,” the sarpanch, Asha Rohane, now admits. “I thought they were teaching rubbish because we have nice girls and boys here.”
|© UNICEF India/2011/ Crouch|
|(Left-right) Rohini Deshkar, 18, Shital Chide, 16, Rushali Gajabhaye, 18, Pramod Ladke, 24, and Vikas Rohane, 19, are all part of the UNICEF-supported Red Ribbon Club.|
But after Rohane watched the group organize public information campaigns, and heard her two daughters talk about what friends were learning, she relented. “I realized that the world is changing, and it is best that my girls learn how to protect themselves,” says Rohane.
Now her daughters are among the 39 girls, aged 11 to 18, who attend club meetings every Sunday in the village health centre.
Staying safe from HIV and AIDS
Although the village is rural, it lies in the midst of the thriving industrial district of Chandrapur. Many residents work in neighbouring factories or at the massive thermal power station nearby, and a constant stream of trucks moves between the village and surrounding areas.
This mobility encourages the spread of disease: The district currently struggles with high HIV/AIDS prevalence. The Red Ribbon Club is attacking this phenomenon head-on.
Nineteen-year-old club member Vikas Rohane meets with boys in the club to talk about condom use, disease transmission and other prevention issues. He is matter-of-fact when he speaks to the group.
“We tell them not to have sex with many partners, to use condoms, to take care with injections or drug use because disease can spread like this, and that it can also pass between mother and child,” Vikas says.
Reaching out to the community
Red Ribbon Club members also go for their own HIV and AIDS test at a nearby district hospital, and have encouraged other family and community members to do the same. The club also visits pregnant women to explain how pregnant women living with HIV can keep their babies safe from infection.
And at the front of their meeting room, the club keeps a green shoebox with a large hole cut in its top, where community members can anonymously submit any questions they might have about disease prevention. The club works on the answers together and posts them for the public to see.
Shital Chide, 16, says her father encouraged her to join the group so she would learn more about the health risks that she might face in her life.
“It is good,” Shital says of her club experience. “This is not something to be shy about. We are simply talking about ourselves.”