Vijiyalakshmi’s family is infected with HIV. She tells SAF how she’s overcome stigma and discrimination in India to now train rural youth from lower castes in HIV prevention and anti-stigma education with her organisation, Vetri Kootam.
1. What inspired you to join Vetri Kootam?
Vetri Kootam was an advocacy group initiated for and by children and young people living with HIV through Buds of Christ. As part of encouraging support towards people living with HIV and preventing new infections, the team had come to our village and I used to support them in making arrangements in the village.
When I saw the programme made a change within my family, in changing the attitude of my second sister who feared contracting HIV through casual contacts, and the village youth to be responsible over their health, I was inspired to join Vetri Kootam.
I approached Buds of Christ in applying for a proposal with Staying Alive Foundation and Vetri Kootam in expanding the programme across other villages and thus I got associated with Vetri Kootam.
1. Can you explain the concept of CHANGE MAKERS?
Change Makers have been evolved to empower rural young people to know, talk about and prevent HIV and AIDS. It is strongly affirmed that young people are more influenced by their peers rather than adults and it is that concept that has been used in developing peer leaders among youth to deliver the HIV and AIDS information to young people in villages.
Rural youth in villages have very limited access to the right information, as HIV is still perceived with a high amount of stigma. But the vulnerabilities around them are also equally high, so in order to effectively address them, this peer led- strategy was adopted and has been effective.
In our concept, we form young people in groups of 15 to 20 in a selected village and every fortnight the group is organised together for a one and half hour sessions on life skills based around HIV and AIDS prevention messages. Currently over 250 young people have joined together in the Change Makers movement.
3. What challenges have you faced in the past year during your project?
Initially, when we started our work, we faced a lot of restrictions from adults in the village, especially from girl’s families. With the support of the NGO and local leaders, families of young people were sensitised and that encouraged better participation of young people.
The second major challenge was the caste difference. We had a mixed representation of people in one village, so the young people from the higher caste were not allowed to mix with the lower caste and that affected the group’s strength in Kumaramangalam village.
In some villages it was very difficult to motivate young people to attend, especially boys; they used to rather playing cricket and girls were allowed only if they completed their household work. Sometimes both young boys and girls go for part-time work in textile units and agriculture labourers during weekends too.
Despite of all the challenges, one area in which we are happy, is that the young people have taken responsibility in keeping their commitment, especially when sessions on sexuality, reproductive health, pregnancy and prevention was dealt.
4. What is the most important message you can give young people living with HIV?
Belonging to a family living with HIV, I have grown facing the challenges in our day to day lives. My mother widowed with three girl children had to face lot of insults and shame by the villagers and family members. But in spite of all those struggles, she has brought us to the level where I am today. I am inspired by my mother’s strength and my youngest sister who is also living with HIV. Her smile, even when people in the village point and say she is living with HIV, has built in me lot of courage to talk about HIV and AIDS and be more fervent in carrying the message of prevention to other young people.
I have learnt a lot from my mother, sister and Vetri Kootam members and my message is BE STRONG, WE STAND BY YOU.