From Bollywood to rural Chandrapur
By Vidya Kulkarni
Bhatali village in Chandrapur district was agog with excitement on Wednesday 13th June 2007. Over 300 villagers had gathered to welcome a special guest; a “Bollywood” celebrity whom they see on their television screens every day. Young boys and girls outnumbered the gathering. Their enthusiasm was evident in anticipation of meeting Gauri Karnik, the young and talented actress and singer from Mumbai, who was visiting them specially to know about their work on HIV/AIDS awareness.
The village based Gram Uday Yuva Mandal, a group of almost 85 young boys and girls, has been spearheading the HIV awareness effort in their community since 2005. The programmes initiated by UNICEF in this area, particularly Village Micro Planning and Sparsh( HIV) training, have motivated youth volunteers to come together and engage in meaningful action. Such proactive efforts often lead to empowerment of the community as a whole.
UNICEF is partnering with high profile supporters from the entertainment industry to highlight the importance of community empowerment. A number of celebrities have shown keen interest in UNICEF’s programmes and have expressed a desire to get associated with it. Gauri put it very aptly, “It is an effort to overcome ignorance of city slickers about the rural peoples’ lives. I am trying to know the reality, so that I would be able to sensitize people around me.”
Incidentally Gauri was also part of a team of members of parliament and celebrities, constituted by UNICEF, to visit malnutrition-affected areas in Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh earlier this year. “The visit was an eye-opener for me. We came across villages where children were deprived of basic nutrition and education. I learnt that malnutrition in some parts of India is very critical, even worse than Somalia.” Gauri thinks that celebrities can certainly help to bringing social issues to the fore and thus contribute in minimizing the gap between rural and urban populations.
In Bhatali village of Maharashtra, Gauri expressed her desire to know more about the youth club activities. They were equally enthusiastic and prepared to share their initiatives with her. First they took Gauri to their center, a room built by the Grampanchayat especially for the youth club activities, to give an overview of their work.
Varsha Salve explained how the youth club members, as peer educators; organize capacity building programmes for the youth. She explained how they provided information and clarified misconceptions on sexuality related issues. Varsha also gave a demonstration on condom use. It was so evident from her confidence that she had internalized what she had learnt.
“It’s impressive” said Gauri spontaneously. “The girls in this village seem to be stronger than their urban counterparts. Even city based educated girls would hesitate to speak openly about sexuality. Giving a condom demonstration in public is out of question for them!”
Trained youth volunteers have been able to build considerable awareness on child health and malnourishment. Shyam Shelvate, a youth volunteer, described how they worked to reduce the extent of malnutrition in the village. “We regularly visit the families having underweight children and help them to prepare nutritionally balanced diets. Further we keep in touch with them to ensure progress in children’s health.”
The Sparsh programme has greatly helped in reducing stigma and discrimination associated with HIV/AIDS. “The youth club members take the initiative to go for voluntary testing. Once we practice what we preach, people want to listen to us,” shared one volunteer. The awareness on HIV among community members was quite remarkable. For instance, the community members are aware that some of its residents are HIV positive. However, these individuals or their families enjoy the same status as any other families in this village. This attitudinal change within the community was also evident from the fact that people were talking openly about HIV concerns in a public meeting.
Gauri whole heartedly appreciated the work being done by the youth. Lastly she also gave a word of advice to the parents; “if you are really concerned about well being of your daughters and wish to protect them, ensure that you send them to the village youth club, where they can learn to know themselves, which is an immensely important and enduring life skill they deserve to get.”