Kodoli village in the Kolhapur district of Maharashtra looks like any other small village. Except, there are red ribbons everywhere.
A red ribbon decorates the path I am walking on, leading to the small room that serves as an anganwadi and prenatal centre. All along the tree-shaded mud path, off the main road leading to the Centre, women waiting to welcome us with traditional aarti and haldikumkum, have created red and white rangoli designs. The white forms the circle in which the red ribbon stands clear. It is a message that HIV is no longer a taboo subject here.
It's a big step for the women of a village to be able to discuss sex. But the women at the Centre, some in traditional kashta saris, are quite unabashed about discussing condoms and HIV awareness.
"It was an embarrassing thing for us to enter a home where men and growing children would be present and try to speak to the women about sexual relations and HIV," admits Dilshad Nazir, one of the more vocal among them. "A few among us had never spoken about sex even in our own homes. But we broke the barriers one by one, first in our own minds, then in that of other women."
She says the women shed their inhibitions soon after they attended a workshop that saw 500 women from various women's groups participate in the orientation on HIV. It helped them understand that women were more vulnerable to HIV and could pass it to to the unborn child as well.
That was motivation enough for the women to take a collective pledge. They would take upon themselves the not-so-easy but very necessary task of educating the rest of the village women about HIV, and ensure there would be no discrimination against someone who was found to be HIV positive. They formed a core committee of 10, the Sakhi Saheli Manch or Forum of Friends.
Perhaps the group's greatest reward was when after a home visit, one of the women came forward to visit the anganwadi and admitted she was HIV positive. "She was making trips to Sangli for her medication because she had been diagnosed there. We were able to direct her to Kolhapur, which is much nearer," another sakhi adds.
Kolhapur's many villagesfall in the high-risk belt along with Sangli and some other districts in the neighbouring states of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. A mercurial migrant population of sugarcane and power loom workers, and truck drivers who pass through on the national highway, make the belt vulnerable to the dangers of HIV through casual sex.
The movement, which started as a forum in September 2010 with the help of the Centre for Advocacy and Research, has grown into an active, pulsating force today. Though it included NGOs and AIDS Control Unit members, the lead was taken by students — many from the SIBER college — specialising in social work.
It was not easy, though. Most came from traditional homes, but found ways to get ahead with their mission. As Sharmila, a soft-spoken, wide-eyed college student put it, "I convinced my mother I needed to do this, even though it meant working with male colleagues, talking about sex, and sometimes working late-nights outside my home. My mother understood, and she worked to make my father see my point of view: that I had to do this for the greater good of our village and community."
The students have to make their peers understand not just the issue of HIV but also the irrationality of discriminating against people with HIV.
"It was not easy," one of the students explained. "In our communities, being good to a person who is living with HIV is seen as condoning the behaviour that caused the condition."
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They did street plays about Longhe, a neighbouring village where an anganwadi worker was thrown out of her job and ostracised after it was discovered that she was HIV-positive, a story that made national headlines. As the students took the play from one taluka of Kohlapur to the next, covering seven in all, the drive became a widening ripple. The number of villagers who went in for voluntary testing rose by 100 a day after the staging of the play, in most villages.
Encouraged, the student group moved to the next step. They visited the Kodoli village, and managed to meet with the sarpanch as well as the gram sabha members, and discussed the threat of HIV with them.
The sarpanch of Kodoli, Manisha Kawade, is a gentle-faced woman. Her smile is hesitant and shy, her eyes don't really meet ours, and her head is covered demurely with the pallu of her white sari. The uniformed marshal who stands behind her tells us of her station, but it is the deputy sarpanch who seems to be determined to hold the floor.
But as he tells us about the student meeting with the gram sabha, Kawade takes charge. "We are all equally at risk," she says. "It is foolish to think that HIV is only someone else's problem. I believe we need to work together to ensure it does not threaten our lives."
Perhaps, the fact that students much younger than themselves were sharing facts about HIV awareness, prevention and treatment, made the gram panchayat respond with amazing alacrity. As advocate Rajendra Patil, also a member of the gram sabha, put it, "We realised that we were responsible to protect the weaker and more vulnerable among us, and had to ensure we did what we could to help them."
The gram gabha spearheaded a week-long awareness drive by the students, through early January 2011. Perhaps as before, the story of the Longhe village incident shown as a skit was the turning point. The results were dramatic beyond expectation. On 26 January, Republic Day, the gram panchayat of Kodali village passed an unprecedented resolution.
"We pledged to honour our Constitution and respect the principles of equality and justice. We pledged on that day not to discriminate and stigamtise against PLHIV to ensure we do not ever deviate from what we have committed to (sic)," said Deputy Sarpanch Dadi Bhonsle.
Since then, the movement has taken many steps, like working with NGOs like the Kolhapur Network of Positive Persons and setting up the anganwadi women's initiative.
"The anganwadi was the most important outpost in our battle against HIV," says Akhila Sivadas, director, CFAR. "This is where the secrets come tumbling out; women are the best agents to understand the problems other women face, and the most powerful agents of change.
"And change has started. Slowly but surely, the number of people coming in for voluntary testing is rising. Combining knowledge about risks and empathy for those already affected, the village is trying to bring down the figures that place it in the high-risk category.
It is one small step in the right direction, a small step towards Kodoli becoming a model village where HIV is neither a matter or fear, not shame, but a manageable and preventable problem like any other. The banner with the red ribbon emblazoned on it, fluttering in the brisk evening breeze, seems to symbolise that hope.