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 haldi kumkum, 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 villages fall 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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