Today I sat in a room of 25 people or more where I was in the minority not because of my race or religion but because of my health status. I am not HIV positive.
You might think the mood would have been serious and pessimistic but it was far from it.
Over the years there have been a lot of schemes helping those diagnosed with HIV but not everyone was getting the help they needed.
Dalit women in particular were often forgotten about or ignored – another example of discrimination.
Christian Aid’s goals were to reach the unreached and create a sustainable community project. And so with the help of partners, the HIV Volunteer Project was developed. These volunteers are mostly women and each is responsible for several districts.
One of the ways HIV can be transmitted is from mother to child at birth. however not all pregnant women know their HIV status. One of the volunteers’ jobs is to make sure that every pregnant woman in their districts is tested. If the woman is discovered to be HIV+ then the volunteer ensures that she goes to her check ups and gets the necessary medication.
The volunteer also provides on-going counselling as this is a very traumatic time for the mother-to-be. Some women are newly weds and have had no idea that their husband was infected. Others do know but have been pressured into marriage by their family.
I met a wonderful volunteer today and one of the mothers she helped. This volunteer persuaded the mother to get tested and was there at the birth of her children when her family would not support her.
But the work these volunteers do goes beyond that. They help and advise mothers on nutrition. They also work with the existing health system to make sure that the government works with poorer communities and treats them respectfully.
Before this project started only 7% of pregnant women here went for testing, now it is 98%.
The volunteers we met today were enthusiastic and committed to their role. One woman said that the service was not available when she had her children, who are all HIV+, so she decided to become a volunteer to help prevent other children from becoming infected. Another woman said she was helped by a volunteer herself and because of that her daughter was HIV negative.
When Dean John Mann spoke to Arogya Aram’s director about the dedication of the volunteers, he replied that they were emotionally bonded to their work. They know by helping other women in their districts, they can make a positive difference to their lives and those of their children. It is all about helping each other and providing advice and support without judgement – I think there are many of us who could learn from these volunteers.