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‘Red Ribbon Express’ rides the rails to raise youth AIDS awareness in India

© UNICEF India/2007/Biswas
Visitors at the Safdarjung Railway Station outside the Red Ribbon Express, which will promote AIDS awareness across India, stopping at 180 stations and reaching more than 50,000 villages.

By Gerrit Beger

NEW DELHI, India, 3 December 2007 – The Railway Age dawned in India in 1853, with the first train to run from Bombay to Thana, a distance of 21 miles. Over 150 years later, the extensive Indian railway network covering almost 70,000 miles is transporting more than passengers and cargo across the continent. Now it is also a vital conduit for raising AIDS awareness.

On World AIDS Day 2007, Sonia Ghandi, one of India's leading politicians, joined high-ranking government officials and representatives of partner organizations – including UNICEF – at New Delhi’s Safdarjang Railway Station. They were there to launch the ‘Red Ribbon Express’, a groundbreaking drive against AIDS.

The largest mass mobilization effort on AIDS undertaken anywhere in the world, The Red Ribbon Express is a landmark effort. In its year-long journey, the train will halt at 180 stations and reach more than 50,000 villages with critical information on HIV prevention.

© UNICEF India/2007/Biswas
Young volunteers with their bicycles in front of the Red Ribbon Express. They will travel with the train, using the bikes to spread information about HIV/AIDS to villages near each stop.

A network of young communicators

“This is a bold initiative, a bold experiment to reach out to millions of people,” said Ms. Gandhi. “Many men and women in their prime of their youth have been lost to the disease. Sadly, through no fault of theirs, children have become victims.

“I do hope the Red Ribbon Express will succeed in educating young people and thereby carry forward the battle against this disease. It is a battle which can and must be won,” she added.

“I extend a special word of commendation to the Nehru Youth Centres and UNICEF,” Ms. Gandhi continued, referring to a network of young communicators who will travel on the train, making HIV and AIDS the talk of towns and villages across India.

Outreach by bicycle and bus

Six performing teams, each with 10 members, will disembark from the train on a fleet of bicycles to visit dozens of villages during each station stop. They will stage plays and skits about stopping HIV infection and fighting AIDS stigma and discrimination. Another group of young campaigners travelling by bus will cover an even larger area than the cyclists at each stop. 

© UNICEF India/2007/Biswas
A visitor at the exhibition about HIV/AIDS awareness aboard the Red Ribbon Express. The train also houses an auditorium for informational sessions.

“Our role is to make people aware through folk media, theatre and street plays. We are going to give knowledge about what is AIDS,” said Yoby Georgee, one of the Nehru Youth Centres activists working on the train.

The train itself is a mobile education and exhibition centre using technologies such as interactive touch screens and 3D models. It has its own auditorium to host education sessions for ‘anganwadi’ (child-care centre) workers, self-help groups and non-governmental organizations for youth and women. A separate coach provides six cabins for counselling and medical services.

Uniting for children

UNICEF, a key partner of the Indian Government and the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, has contributed over $1.2 million to the Red Ribbon Express project, which is expected to add tremendous value to UNICEF’s AIDS prevention work in India.

In India and beyond, UNICEF and partners have been advocating for an AIDS-free generation as part of the Unite for Children, Unite against AIDS global campaign launched in October 2005.

“There really is no better expression of the ‘Unite’ campaign in India than the Red Ribbon Express,” UNICEF Representative in India Dr. Gianni Murzi said at the launch event. He noted that the train’s journey through 22 states in the country would “spread the message of health and hope for all people affected by HIV/AIDS and at risk of infection.”

Prevention is absolutely critical to stopping the spread of HIV. The Red Ribbon Express aims to reach youth in India’s most disadvantaged and remote communities before the virus reaches them.




3 December 2007:
UNICEF correspondent Elizabeth Kiem reports on the landmark Red Ribbon Express initiative launched in India on World AIDS Day.
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