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Saving lives

AIDS researchers reaches out to rural areas.

By Elisabeth Sherwin
Davis Enterprise, December 14, 2005 (page A1)

Davis resident Koen Van Rompay, founder of Sahaya International, has raised thousands of dollars over the past seven years to help women and children in southern India.
Last year at this time he scored a real fund-raising coup when the Elton John AIDS Foundation in London gave Sahaya a grant for $100,000 for a specific HIV program. He estimates that in the past year 50,000 people in rural Tamil Nadu have learned something about HIV and AIDS, what it is, and what it isn’t.

selfhelp group
A trained leader of a women’s self-help group in India uses flip-charts with simple cartoons to educate other members of her group on the basic facts of HIV and AIDS. The program is funded by a grant from the Elton John AIDS Foundation.

Van Rompay, a UC Davis AIDS researcher, said he knew just what to do with the Elton John grant because the proposal had been designed with a partnering nongovernmental social service agency in the state of Tamil Nadu, Perambalur district. Working with members of READ, Rural Education and Action Development, a plan to train peer educators on the prevention and spread of HIV was given new life.

Van Rompay said residents of the rural area he visits are impoverished, have low literacy rates, little knowledge about HIV/AIDS or sex and sexuality, and little access to traditional media. Further, many men work as migrant workers – a group that is difficult to reach through traditional methods and is highly susceptible to HIV/AIDS.
He says significant gender inequity exists, with women having little or no ability to negotiate safe sex and almost no access to health information. He adds that the Indian government is focusing its attention on teeming Indian cities.

“The Indian government is not paying enough attention to the increasing HIV epidemic in rural areas,” said Van Rompay. “Because of all these factors, misconceptions and stigma about HIV are rampant in the villages. It was felt that the best way to spread correct awareness about HIV and AIDS-related issues was by training people at the local village level to become peer educators.

“Twenty members of READ’s field staff first received extensive training on topics of sex, sexuality and HIV/AIDS, and they then trained 100 female self-help group leaders and 50 barbers to become peer educators,” Van Rompay explained. He added that at the start of the program there were already about 600 women’s self-help groups in the area with 10 to 15 members, and that the trained women peer educators are now visiting all these groups.
“ I was there in October and visited two women’s self-help groups when the program was being presented,” he said. “It was very good and the women said they learned a lot from their peer educator.”

The hope is that the barbers will reach the men. Van Rompay said men tend to trust their barbers and speak frankly to them, so barbers can play a key role in providing accurate information about HIV, AIDS and safe sex.

As part of the program sponsored by the grant, READ also has a cultural team that performs street theater to reach people in rural villages. The goal for the coming year is to expand the street theater to include puppet shows.
Van Rompay said a big part of the HIV prevention and care program has been the development of flip-charts and cartoon booklets explaining in simple language how HIV is transmitted, how to prevent it, and how to help those who are already affected.

He said the grant and training came just in time. “Before we got the grant we had seven members of READ’s field staff trained on HIV issues. But over the years, several of those people left and we needed new and many more people,” he said. “We want peer educators to empower the community in programs that are sustainable. We don’t want to impose something on them from the outside without direct participation.”

“To involve the community more and give them ownership of the program, we’ve announced a competition for the people to come up with HIV slogans, posters and scripts for the street theater program,” he added. The award ceremony will be held in January or February when Van Rompay will be back in Tamil Nadu.

Has the program made a difference over the past year?
“We estimate that at least 20,000 have directly benefited from the program by attending at least one of the events – this includes approximately 9,000 women in self-help groups, 5,000 male barber clients and 6,000 other members of the general public,” Van Rompay said.

“Because we also distribute booklets and fliers that they take home, their relatives and friends may also have received better awareness, bringing the total as high as perhaps 50,000,” he said.
Another benefit of the HIV peer educators is better health overall. The READ field staff, women self-help group leaders and barbers also refer locals to reliable doctors and clinics for diagnosis and treatment of HIV and sexually transmitted diseases.

barbers
As part of the program funded by the Elton John AIDS Foundation, these barbers in Perambalur district, southern India, have been given training in AIDS awareness and prevention and will hand out free condoms to their customers. Davis resident Koen Van Rompay oversees the project.

Additionally, an official AIDS orphan sponsorship program run by Sahaya International (www.sahaya.org) and the Alliance for Youth Achievement (www.allforyouth.org) has connected well-wishers in the United States and Europe with 44 needy children. READ receives $30 a month for each child, which provides education, food and clothing. A portion of the monthly contribution is set aside and given to the guardian at the end of the year to start an income-generating activity by buying a goat, chickens or a sewing machine. More than 20 people in Davis are sponsoring AIDS orphans.

In addition to Van Rompay’s work planning the next HIV prevention strategy with READ, he also intends to continue writing grants and to solicit information from the local women’s self-help groups on their preference for new toilets. Would they prefer a large public facility or several smaller semi-private bathhouses? Davis residents pitched in to raise more than $5,000 for the READ public hygiene project over the course of the past year.

Van Rompay may be reached at kkvanrompay@ucdavis.edu or www.sahaya.org



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