Monday, March 9, 2009

Naturally different !!!

The story began when Ron (name withheld) was 15. He started realizing that he was different. Different from his other boy friends. He was more comfortable with girls. He enjoyed girly talk. Sometimes secretly experimented with his mother’s lipstick shades.
Ron is a ‘Kothi’ (transgender – male having feminine characteristics). But his story is not so simple. A diary of events followed when his secrets came out of the closet. Family, friends, society – everybody gave him that unusual look. And the story continued…….

There are many hidden and visible Rons in our society. They belong to the MSM (male-who-have-sex-with-men) community – one of the most neglected communities in India and many other parts of the world.
Earlier many of us used to feel that MSMs are offshoots of the hip hop western culture. But the ground reality is a complete contrast to this thought. This is just a human quality that can exist in glamorous cities as well as in remote villages. Oxfam India and partners have evolved our thoughts and started working with the MSM communities addressing their needs and rights. Our one such intervention is in the Kalakhandi district of Orissa with two partners – Parivartan and FARR (Friends Association for Rural Reconstruction).
In Kalahandi, Parivartan with support from Oxfam India has organized an MSM support group called “Bhawanis”. Presently “Bhawanis” has 93 members and is registered under Society Registration Act. The group operates a drop-in centre in the district running vocational classes for the group members, training peer educators, providing referral services and raising awareness on HIV and AIDS.
There are many issues of concern specific to the rural MSM population. Most important being poverty. Social exclusion and lack of employment opportunities often compel them to get involved with low-paid sex work, entertaining six to seven clients a day, usually without condoms. Shockingly, at times for more money, they even have sex with known HIV infected persons without any protection. Moreover many MSMs have regular male partners with whom they continue to have unprotected sex. All these proliferate in the formsof grave health problems with spread of HIV and making the MSM population one of the most high-risk communities in getting HIV infection. With introduction of confidential testing facilities more number of MSMs are identified with presumably high rate of HIV infection.
According to Mr. Sunil Patel, Secretary, Parivartan, “more than 90% MSMs interviewed by Parivartan, worked as paid sex workers and were completely unaware of the need of condom usage.” Therefore when we started working with the group one of our primary agenda was to disseminate information on HIV and AIDS and educate MSMs about the benefits of condom usage. But continuous intervention complemented with extensive research made us realize that information is not sufficient unlessit is exercised. And for that we have to revamp their self esteem and confidence. Long term behavior change communication initiatives interspersed with small and large group discussions and sessions on personality development slowly shaped changes. Today most of the group members fearlessly say – “no condom, no sex.” They realize health is costlier than money.
We have also linked many of them with micro-finance institutions. Financial assistance from these institutes helped them start their own small-scale business initiatives.
Initiatives are also taken at village and district levels. Few members of “Bhawanis” are trained as peer-educators. They set up information stalls at the weekly markets and railway stations, demonstrate messages through street theatre and conduct regular meetings at “Pally sabha” and “Gram sabha” on topics such as – MSMs and social stigma etc. Fortunately all these have seeded considerable changes in the local societal thinking perspective.
Orissa State AIDS Control Society and other NGOs and INGOs (International NGOs) visited and appreciated our approach. In continuation to this we decided to move on and replicate this model in the Koraput district of Orissa. Ekta is our partner in the district and the name of the new group is “Jagruti” meaning “the awakening”.

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