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`I care... do you?'

In villages around Baroda a successful attempt has been made to address the gender power balance that affects decision-making and health care. Adolescents are taught more than just livelihood skills, writes MAITREYEE SAHA.

A peer educator shares her experiences about attending the classes.

SPEAKING of sex to an adolescent is daunting. Even in a liberal city, a biology teacher prefers to skip the chapters relating to sexual health, reproductive system, risk of sexually transmitted diseases and AIDS.

So it came as a surprise, in the rural outskirts of Baroda, people like Lakshmi, Dinesh and Raju conduct an easy and frank discussion on the causes and symptoms of AIDS with a group of teenagers and young adults. Responsible sexual behaviour is the main focus of the discussion. There is an occasional titter and an embarrassed giggle but it is all taken in good humour.

Raika, one of the 27 villages in Nandesari where The Deepak Charitable Trust (DCT) works, is like any other Indian village. What happens here sets the village apart from the others. The dairy is run and managed by an all-woman crew while the Panchayat ghar doubles up as a classroom for vocational skills for adolescent boys in the evening. AIDS awareness and sexual health topics are discussed from the same platform, as these are integrated components within the broader community development initiatives.

According to UNAIDS, the Joint United Nations Programme for HIV/AIDS, young people are at the centre of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Not only are youngsters are susceptible to the disease, but they also carry the burden of caring for affected family members. Around the world, AIDS is shattering opportunities for healthy adult lives. Nevertheless, it is the young who offer the greatest hope for changing the course of the epidemic.

"I care... Do you?" is the slogan for the second year of a two-year campaign intended to create a sustained focus on the role of men in the AIDS epidemic. It aims to involve men, particularly young ones, in the effort against AIDS; to bring about a much-needed focus on men in national responses to the epidemic and to involve leaders both as politicians and individuals.

As the sexual health programme was introduced, it was found that masturbation and nocturnal emissions were the main causes of anxiety among young men, said Ms. Aruna Lakhani, Director, DCT. According to UNAIDS, there are many myths surrounding HIV/AIDS. Despite two decades of prevention efforts, young people often do not know the basic facts about the epidemic or how to protect themselves.

In Baroda, myths surrounding semen, its association with a man's virility and energy led many adolescents and men into high-risk behaviour. These anxieties were further aggravated by the absence of accurate and accessible sources of information and misconceptions perpetuated by community members, says Ms. Lakhani. In fact, a study conducted by the International Institute of Population Sciences revealed a close link between violence against women and men's concerns regarding sexual performance.

What came through from the conversations with the adolescents was that they had been given the essential life skills that would make them responsible adults. And here lies the importance of the programme. The adolescent boys and girls learnt more than just a skill that would enable them to earn a livelihood, or a functional knowledge of reproductive health or the use of condoms for safe sex.

Attitude towards self and the opposite sex as well as knowledge, behaviour and practice are brought into focus. The programme attempts to address the gender power balance that affects decision-making and health care seeking behaviour. A consolidated training curriculum has been designed for the purpose. A questionnaire first assesses the knowledge, attitude, behaviour and practice on reproductive health and gender. Based on the responses, the curricula's priorities are defined.

Coming from a patriarchal society, the responses to such questionnaires are interesting, if not very surprising. For instance, the young boys' perception of a male and his responsibilities included not only his looks, earning capacity and energy but his need to be entertained. A game of cards or a movie was regarded as necessary "tasks" of a man. Entertainment, however, did not figure in their perception of a woman, her life or needs. Similarly, she was defined by the clothes she wore, her respect for other members of the family and her work in the kitchen. Raising children and looking after the household did not count as "work".

"When this group was shown a documentary on the hours a woman spent working at home, it was a revelation," says Bhairavi, a field worker. "Our constant discussions on gender issues have been fruitful," she says. "We can see the change in their attitude, a new and healthy respect for the opposite sex."

DCT has been able to involve more than 300 adolescent boys and girls in about 10 different classes. Embroidery, tailoring, leather and rexin work and beautician courses are popular with girls while boys prefer to take up motor rewinding, wiring, scooter repairing, repair of home appliances as well as tailoring. Some of the adolescents identified as "high-risk" in the sexual health programme are encouraged to join the adolescent skill development and reproductive health classes.

Most girls come back with increased self- esteem and confidence. Another inspiration for girls is the success of the women's dairy cooperatives in five villages of Nandesari. There are 774 members with many more eager to join. The annual turnover from the dairy is more than Rs. 55 lakhs.

Quite a few of the beneficiaries of the sexual health integrated project turn into peer educators and help in their own way to spread awareness. Mukesh, who runs a cable network, for instance, often plays cassettes on gender sensitisation provided by DCT on his network. Boys like Kanti and Mukesh organise their own groups of adolescents and gauge their knowledge and attitude on sexual health and gender. They try to answer questions and clear doubts. Once in a while, they bring in experts from the health centre to address the group. Nearly everyone comments on the way they now spend their evenings. No longer idle gossip that would invariably turn to girls and sex. "Now we feel we have something worthwhile to do, some new passion to nurture and ambitions to fulfil," sums up one young man.

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