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‘Stigma Prevents Access to HIV Services’

Times of India
21 April 2011
Pune, India

The two–day state–level convention of MSM (men having sex with men), Saptarang (Rainbow), that concluded in Panhala on Wednesday had participants unanimously asserting that the stigma, discrimination and criminalisation faced by the community prevent universal access to HIV prevention services, treatment, care and support.

Darshana Vyas, project director, Pathfinder International, said, "The convention was held at Panhala (Kolhapur district) and was an attempt to re–energise the MSM community, strengthen community feeling and leverage greater leadership and involvement in project governance and implementation."

She said that community–based organisations (CBOs) formed so far, have to gradually evolve into a state–level federation acting as a constant support to the community and giving voice to their issues. "We not only need to ensure that the community is made part of the mainstream, but also continue and scale our efforts to reach the unreached."

The convention was organised by Pathfinder International which has been implementing the Mukta project to reduce prevalence of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and HIV/AIDS among the most at risk populations such as female sex workers (FSW), MSMs and their partners. Now working in five districts of Maharashtra, the project seeks to transition the management and implementation of the HIV programme to CBOs.

The convention held at Panhala brought together around 300 community members from six districts of Maharashtra, namely Kolhapur, Latur, Nasik, Beed, Pune and Yavatmal where CBOs have been formed.

Various groups and institutions working with the MSM community such as Samabhavana Society, Samapathik and Udaan also attended the convention. The event included guided discussions on strengthening communication for behaviour change, raising awareness on human rights, entitlements and imparting microplanning, leadership and teambuilding skills.

Sameer Kumta, from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that supports HIV prevention programmes in the districts, underlined the need for leadership from within the community and called upon the members to take ownership of the work and share responsibilities.

"It is only through collective efforts that we can address newer challenges, while contributing effectively towards bringing down the HIV prevalence rates," he said, adding that the convention was a platform to rethink the communication, leadership and management strategies for a stronger community–led HIV response.

Kumar (name changed) a Kolhapur–based peer educator, said, "Coming together proved helpful in understanding how we can collectively address issues such as adherence to ART, consistent Condom use, diagnosis and treatment of STIs, voluntary HIV testing, etc. We hope to carry home learnings from this workshop and use it to reach out to the community at our level."

In the session on legal literacy, participants were informed about rights of the community and applicable legal provisions. Raju, another MSM from Latur, while sharing his learning from the session, said there are some laws that criminalise sexual acts between members of the same sex.

"We must collectively challenge such laws and policies that abuse human rights and limit fundamental freedom," he said.

Pathfinder International has facilitated FSW and MSM CBOs in Kolhapur, Latur, Nashik, Beed, Pune and Yavatmal districts and has successfully handed over six district interventions to the Maharashtra State AIDS Control Society as part of the third phase of the National AIDS Control Programme (NACP III). The project has been successful in decreasing STI rates among FSWs and MSM by over 30% in the last five years.

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