Lessons from South Asia

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A theater troupe performing plays about men who have sex with men.  A group of injecting drug users in Bangladesh drawing attention to their plight with red mannequins.  And a beauty pageant in Nepal –with only transgendered contestants.

In South Asia, a number of different initiatives are now under way in attempting to reduce stigma around HIV/AIDS. At a panel last week at the Global Health Council annual conference, representatives from the World Bank and the International Center for Research on Women presented results from their joint project called the South Asia Regional Development Marketplace Partnership (SARDM).

The project, which began in 2008, provided grants for South Asian advocacy groups to begin distinctive stigma-reduction programs in their respective countries.  The presenters explained that although HIV prevalence in South Asia is low overall, HIV is still on the rise among vulnerable and often marginalized groups, such as sex workers and their clients; injection drugs users (IDUs) and their partners; and men having sex with men (MSM).  Stigma and other barriers impede efforts to reach those most in need of prevention, care, and treatment services.

Each project included people from marginalized groups in planning and implementation, and encouraged them to artistically convey anti-stigma and discrimination messages.  In doing so, they gave them a voice in communities where stigma and discrimination usually keep them silent. 

Mariam Claeson, the regional coordinator for the World Bank South Asia AIDS Team, explained that over 1000 groups submitted applications to the program when it was announced.  Submissions came from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.  Out of the 1000, 26 were chosen from six countries to pilot their innovative interventions over a 12- to 18-month period.  They awarded grants totaling $1.04 million; an average grant was $40,000. In all, the 26 groups reached more than 96,264 people, and trained 4,905 people.  The projects generated 504 news articles, and developed 426 projects, such as training curricula, information, documentaries, and plays.

Projects included:

  • Traditional theatre in India: A group called Lotus Integrated AIDS Awareness Sangam, which reaches out to men who have sex with men, had members develop a play about their struggles in life. They performed it 75 times in one year in rural villages of Tamil Nadu.  Participants reported a significant decrease in stigma and discrimination, and 147 “hidden” MSM identified themselves to Lotus and sought services.
  • Making mannequins in Bangladesh: JOBS Trust, a group which seeks to rehabilitate injection drug users through economic development, employed injection drug users to make specially designed, red mannequins which are displayed in clothing stores.  These mannequins are adorned with signs which highlight the plight of marginalized groups victimized by stigma and discrimination.
  • Beauty pageants in Nepal: The Federation of Sexual and Gender Minorities Nepal held a beauty pageant featuring transgendered contestants as a way to empower its members and raise awareness about stigma.  As government officials attended the pageant and voiced their support, implementers hoped that such an event would aid in reducing discrimination.

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