Nava Kiran Plus

Change making in HIV awareness

The struggle to reinstate the three expelled HIV positive students in Lekhnath- Kaski, is no doubt an indication that the challenges in addressing stigma and discrimination against PLHIV (people living with HIV) are much graver than anticipated. The issue was tossed around in the media for a good few weeks last month and has now dissolved into a muted death. The last we heard was that these children were being removed from the school – period. Not just the children but all the other PLHIV who were living in a rented house and making a living out of a rented farmland were also being evicted, with the onus of their relocation resting on a government desperately scrambling for power and plum portfolios.

On World AIDS Day last December, the then Prime Minister Prachanda sat delightedly next to a little boy to express his support for PLHIV. A large photograph was splashed on the front pages of major newspapers and the little boy seemed to enjoy his 24 hours of fame. But what has really become of him and those that he represented? One example of what HAS happened to them is the incident in Kaski. They have been denied the basic rights that countries worldwide endorsed in the CRC (Convention on the Rights of the Child) – the right to education and the right to protection from abuse and neglect, among others. Another example of what HAS transpired since December is the resignation of Prachanda from office opposing reinstatement of army chief Katawal and the relentless discourse and debate on the notion of civilian supremacy that has ensued. Bypassing any rhetoric and theories on civilian supremacy, I want to point out that the ultimate failure of civilian supremacy is denying a child his/her fundamental rights. Children are the building blocks and the foundation of what civilian supremacy really is in its most elemental sense. Denial of their basic rights is in itself abuse and neglect of the child and erosion at the very core of civilian supremacy.

Much was said by the media and in the media about the guardians’ ignorance and prejudice regarding HIV and AIDS. Reports about the unsuccessful programme with guardians following an accusation of “ignorance” by an HIV activist demonstrate how an overly aggressive method to bring about changes in a viewpoint that is clearly resistant to coercion can derail a perfectly well-intentioned process. Just imagine yourselves as the parents/guardians – would you want to listen to or cooperate with someone (or even a large group of experts/activists) who thinks or calls you an “ignorant” person? Would you want to change your perspective for those who have just declared your opinions immutable by labeling them “ignorant”? Add to that your fears and concerns for your child’s well-being. You find yourself surrounded and cornered by all the bigwigs who think they know better than you do about what is good for your child. And to make matters worse, you find yourself in the thick of a muddled and highly-publicised (and in your view needlessly so) media story? Your already fragile opinions about organisations you think misused funds in the name of HIV/AIDS are now at breaking point. You do not want to violate anyone’s human right – all you want to do is protect your child.

These are very human concerns dealing with ideological incongruities that are often difficult to reconcile. The guardians are not responding counter-norm because they are mean and unfeeling people. They are not necessarily ignorant either – in fact, the term “ignorant” is imbued with a negative connotation and hurled at their personal integrity or “ego” with callousness. Instead, they are simply responding as they know best – as guardians. They are just doing their job of guarding their precious possessions. How can that be ignorance?

The failure to change the parents’ stand on removing the HIV positive students is seen as a failure by various organizations in the awareness raising efforts. Now that would be too presumptuous and frankly quite harsh on the part of the media and the public. The inability to alter the guardians’ instincts to guard their child is not the fiasco that it is made out to be of awareness and advocacy work on HIV/AIDS. Rather, it serves to lay out what still remains to be done. If it were truly a failed initiative, the support that poured from the public, the media, and the government would not have happened. Cynics will immediately pounce at this and say “Aha! But these are the “educated”, the “enlightened” lot. Awareness has failed to reach remote areas. It has certainly failed to reach Lekhnath in Kaski.” Rejoinder to cynics: Not really. An “educated” person is not necessarily enlightened or immune to committing discriminatory acts. By the same token, an “uneducated” person is not necessarily ignorant or singularly capable of discrimination.

The material point here is that we have many more miles to go and many more minds to go into in advocating for the rights of people living with HIV and spreading awareness. The support and work toward ensuring that the rights of even ONE child affected by HIV/AIDS (whether HIV positive him/herself or related to an HIV positive person or orphaned by AIDS) must come from all levels – the government, civil society, communities, families, religious leaders and from PLHIV themselves. “To redeem one person is to redeem the world,” said the maverick psychoanalyst Frieda Fromm-Reichmann and nowhere is it more relevant than in the case of Kaski. This is also a crucial area and the right time when the various youth groups affiliated with the political parties – Maoists’ YCL, Congress’ Tarun Dal, and UML’s Youth Force – can use their authority and influence to contribute constructively in their communities on promoting awareness activities and also on empowering those facing stigma and discrimination based on HIV status.

Mass campaigns that reach out to many in a short span of time follow a utilitarian philosophy. They are more time-saving and cost-effective than qualitative methods that are often more time-consuming and require more resources both human and financial. Reaching more people in a shorter timeframe is smart and even necessary given the rapidity with which HIV is escalating in Nepal and the rest of the world. But in cases such as the one in Lekhnath, a quick lowdown on HIV/AIDS by organizing an equally quick awareness visit or campaign cannot be an effective approach as evidenced in the guardians’ staunch resistance. It is one thing to campaign for or against something and quite another to reach into the very rudiments of a deep seated fear that compels people to act a certain way. Different sets of skills are required for each. Frustrated activism that does not consider why a person performs a particular act of discrimination and instead begins to label in accusatory manners is not the way to conduct meaningful and change making activism.

The question then is how do we work with such resistance? A very powerful technique, which in hindsight may seem too simplistic, is to work from the other’s perspective before thrusting one’s own agenda on them. This requires the right skills and patience. The person may not change his/her viewpoint right away – after all, human beings are not machines and that is where the path of HIV/AIDS awareness becomes very steep. The attempts to change or rather to “educate” the guardians on HIV/AIDS were done too quickly for them to get a chance to come to terms with their own misgivings about HIV/AIDS and their prejudice against organizations working on HIV/AIDS. The accusatory tone of AIDS activism did not help the process and instead created more friction between the activists and the parents/community, so much so that the issue snowballed into the eviction of other PLHIV in the area.

The next case in point is the education and future of the children. Getting them enrolled back at Diamond school would be ideal and would set a good example, no doubt. But since it seems unachievable at present, the best course of action is to enroll them where they are accepted and welcome. A school that takes them in would set a far better example. And that is the precise point where change making begins. When an idea is difficult to sell at one place, it is more practical to start where it can and does sell. It now remains to be seen which school and which community will emerge as change makers in redeeming the three little children.

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