India targets village women as HIV infections increase

New Delhi, Sep 25 ( As HIV infections among India’s rural women show an increasing trend, the government is reaching out to them to reduce their vulnerability to AIDS, targeting 40 districts identified across nine states.

“There is an increasing prevalence of HIV among women, especially rural women. This is causing us concern,” said K. Sujatha Rao, chief of the National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO), that formulates policy and implements programmes for the prevention and control of HIV and AIDS.

“Women in rural areas are more vulnerable and we would like to create awareness among them. But all these are sensitive issues. Women could face stigma and so it has to be sensitively handled,” Rao, who is secretary in the union health ministry, told Inditop.

She said women in India account for around one million out of 2.5 million estimated number of people living with HIV/AIDS.

“Their heightened vulnerability has both biological and socio-economic reasons. Early marriage, violence and sexual abuse against women are the major socio-economic reasons for their vulnerability to HIV infection. Their biological construct makes them more susceptible to HIV infection in any heterosexual encounter.”

For the intervention programme, NACO has roped in women self help groups (SHGs), which will be given special training to disseminate information.

Most of these SHGs are already working in villages as they are involved in micro-credit schemes. They are promoted by the rural development ministry.

“These self help groups have better access to women. In such situations, women need support and they will find it easy to cope with their problem with the support of these SHGs,” Rao said.

For the project, she said an estimated Rs.18 million ($360,000) has been earmarked.

In the first phase, SHG workers will be trained in 40 districts in Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Gujarat and Haryana. The districts have been identified as those where HIV infection among rural women is high.

Rao said women in rural areas are vulnerable because they or their husbands migrate to cities and towns for jobs because of either drought or other problems.

“They work in construction sites or are involved in some other work. They are vulnerable and could be sexually exploited. Even if they are staying back and are into monogamous relationship, they don’t know about their partners and could get infected,” she said.

“Many are not empowered enough to tell their partners about safe sex. Also, if they have the infection and are pregnant, they don’t know how to stop its transmission to their child,” Rao told Inditop.

Five percent of all HIV infections are from parent to child, she said.

“We want to bring it to zero in rural areas. We want to create awareness among them so that they visit institutions where they can get proper treatment to prevent the transmission,” she added.

According to Mayank Aggarwal, joint director in NACO, the pilot programme was launched in July with the training of master trainers in these states.

These master trainers will then train district trainers, who will in turn teach SHG workers on how to create awareness among the women, many of whom may not be educated or know about the deadly consequences of the disease.

“We will be training as many as 80,000 people,” he said.

He said the main objective is to disseminate information and empower women so that they are less vulnerable to HIV and AIDS.

“We think we will be able to address the issue of stigma and discrimination in a better way by involving self help groups. We have already prepared and distributed special modules for this project,” Aggarwal told Inditop.