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Red Ribbon Express educates on HIV and AIDS in Assam

© UNICEF/Dalia Das/2008
Volunteers collecting data from visitors to the Red Ribbon Express

Munmi Gogoi

TINSUKIA (Assam) March 15, 2008: When Champa, a village volunteer from Dibrugarh, reached the Tinsukia railway station, she boarded a train but did not expect to travel. This was no ordinary train but the Red Ribbon Express, and by the end of the day she and 60 other village volunteers had received specialized training on HIV and AIDS in one of the compartments designed as a training room.

The Red Ribbon Express came to Tinsukia on March 13 and parked itself at the railway station. Unlike other trains that blow a whistle and chug off in a few minutes, the Express stayed on.

With 27,000 stops in 24 states of India over a period of one year, the Red Ribbon Express is undertaking the longest journey any train has in India both in terms of distance and time.

Flagged off at New Delhi on World AIDS Day 2007 by Mrs. Sonia Gandhi, the train journeyed slowly through various states of India such as Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand before it arrived at Assam.

It was eagerly awaited with an awareness campaign having been carried out earlier. As a result, the railway station saw a big rush of people many of whom, like Champa, did not come to travel but to learn about HIV and AIDS. She said that although she did know the basics about HIV and AIDS, there was enough new information to gather from the exhibition and the on-board training.

No train has had such a mission ever before. With around 2.5 million people living with HIV and AIDS in India today, the urgency of making people across the country aware of the routes of infection, methods of protection and the need to accept people who are HIV-positive cannot be overstated.

© UNICEF/Dalia Das/2008
Young people play computer games on HIV on the Red Ribbon Express

Ignorance about HIV and the stigma of being HIV-positive are responsible for HIV-positive people not revealing their HIV status and accessing care and treatment.

The Red Ribbon Express came to give a boost to local efforts aimed at improving people’s knowledge of HIV and AIDS, encouraging them to adopt safe behaviours and reducing stigma and discrimination.

Students could participate in a discussion on HIV which was till then a subject that evoked shyness, hesitation and giggles. “This has also made interaction (on such sensitive issues) between students and teachers smoother,” said Ms. Jaya Purkayastha, another teacher.

Much excitement preceded the arrival of the Express, and when it did arrive people poured in hundreds. The spectacle was unmatched for Tinsukia. Hundreds of schoolchildren from senior classes turned up with their teachers with the District Inspector leading the march.

They stopped at the displays where the volunteers from the North-East Society for Promotion of Youths and Masses (NESPYM), UNICEF’s partner NGO, explained to them the details on the 39 panels and 3-D models.

Students also had fun as they played interactive computer games on board the train and watched television spots. Health workers and people from the surrounding towns got a refresher lesson on HIV and AIDS.
 
A teacher from Hijuguri Railway School P.B. Chakravarty found the Red Ribbon Express to be a unique experience for the students. “The visual aids, interactive games and audio-visual displays gave students something new and interesting,” he said.

By the time the Red Ribbon Express left, it had opened many minds to new thoughts. “Biases, stigmatization and targeting of women as being responsible for spreading HIV and AIDS are new perspectives for me,” said Ms. Jaya Purkayashta.

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