Women and AIDS
ABVA report cover as then published
NEW DELHI: “… The National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO) has decided to set up permanent camps at certain locations. The mobile camps are set up four times a month, each screening high-risk individuals such as sex workers, migrants, drug users, truck drivers, men having sex with men and construction labourers. The Govandi slum has some 15,000 migrant labourers, mostly from UP, Bihar and Nepal, who live in matchbox-size rooms.”
– The Sunday Express, 29 November, 2015
“There are no bio-medical or physiological factors which make some groups rather than others more prone to HIV infection. Contrary to popular fantasy, the modes of transmission of HIV put many more people at risk than the label “high-risk group” implies. It is not what you are but what you do, and what blood-banks and blood product manufacturers and hospitals do, that constitutes the primary risk factor. It therefore becomes crucial to understand the spread of HIV in terms of activities and not groups which are at high-risk.”
– Extracts from ‘Women & AIDS - Denial and Blame,’ 1990
On the eve of World AIDS Day, December 1, 2015, AIDS Bhedbhav Virodhi Andolan is releasing the digitized version of its very first report titled “Women & AIDS – Denial and Blame”, twenty-five years after it was first published. The report is as relevant today as it was when the print version was first brought out. The above two quotes bear testimony to this.
In 1988, a group of Delhi-based voluntary workers involved in community work in education, health, law, women’s and gay issues came together over the plight of women working in G.B. Road, Delhi’s red-light area. In 1990 the group released this Citizens’ report. This was probably the first such report in India which documents the discrimination of HIV+ and AIDS patients as also of women in sex work. This group immediately after the release of the report organized itself into AIDS Bhedbhav Virodhi Andolan (AIDS Anti-Discrimination Movement, ABVA) a non-funded, non-party organization. Till 2013 ABVA had shied away from the digital world because of its penchant for romance of the printed word!
An update is in order. In March 1990, the Delhi Police acquired notoriety when they ‘arrested’ 112 children of women in prostitution on the charge of being ‘neglected juveniles’, simply because their mothers were sex workers. The raid and its aftermath are documented in detail in the report. However, even after the Juvenile Welfare Board pronounced that the children were not neglected, the State went in appeal. The appeal was dismissed in March 1995 with the help of legal assistance provided by Shobha Aggarwal, advocate and member, ABVA.
Efforts to digitize the reports of ABVA have been undertaken as not much has changed in the last 25 years. The discrimination faced by HIV+ persons in India at the hands of the authorities is as rampant today as it was when the report was first brought out. Though not headline-hogging anymore, occasionally reports appear in the print media about such instances. In mid 2015 an instance of a 7 year old HIV+ student was reported; he was asked to leave school for being HIV+ in Bishmpur area of South-24 Parganas District in West Bengal, India. The boy’s maternal grandmother a teacher in the same school was forced to take a HIV test. The boy’s mother too had tested positive in January, 2015 and is now working with an NGO engaged in spreading awareness about HIV. The mother was earlier told by the school authorities that they were planning to set up a different room for the boy where he will sit alone away from others. In November 2015, the boy was allowed entry to the school; he said:
“I have packed my bag and taken out my uniform, my diary, my notebook and all other things are inside. I am so excited because I will meet my friends.”
Hopefully he will not be isolated in the classroom.
This child, his mother and grandmother were discriminated against because 100 odd parents of other school children had petitioned that the HIV+ child be asked to leave the school or they wouldn’t allow their wards to study there. Not just the authorities but the members of the local community harbour unfounded biases against HIV+ persons. No one has been taken to task for this discrimination. In a country where untouchability has a scriptural sanction of more than two millennia, the discrimination is embedded in the minds.
Excerpts from the report “Women & AIDS - Denial and Blame”
FACTS AND MYTHS ABOUT AIDS Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) has become a health and human rights crisis of major proportions around the world. As of June this year, 263,051 cases of AIDS have been reported from 156 countries to the WHO, which now estimates that 8-10 million people world-wide may be infected. In India, according to the limited findings of the Indian Council of Medical Research, 2,167 persons have been found infected with HIV, as against 4,61,118 samples of blood belonging to ‘high-risk groups’ screened between October ‘85 (when the screening programme began) and March 31, 1990. 44 AIDS cases have been documented in our country. What is AIDS? AIDS is not a single disease but rather a complex of symptoms caused by infections and/or cancers, primarily due to disruption of the immune system of the body by an under-lying viral infection. AIDS is thought to be caused by a virus called Human Immune-deficiency Virus (HIV) which infects certain types of white blood cells which have important functions in the immune system. HIV Testing HIV tests like the ELISA (Enzyme linked Immuno-sorbant assay) are designed to register the presence of antibodies to the virus rather than the virus itself. Antibodies indicate that the person’s immune system is fighting a foreign body, in this case HIV.
However, antibodies to HIV take an average period of 6 weeks to 3 months and in some cases upto 3 years, to show up in the blood. Tests on recently infected persons can therefore give false negative results. Also, in a small minority of cases antibodies are never produced even though the virus is present in the person’s blood. Further, the ELISA test has a high rate of false positives. For this reason the accepted but not always carried out testing protocol, is a three step process of two ELISA tests followed by a Western Blot assay, a more sensitive but also more costly step. Even this three step protocol is not always accurate and the false positive rate for it may be quite high.
This fact is systematically ignored and leads to unnecessary harassment of citizens. Hundreds of women in prostitution who were illegally detained in welfare homes in Tamil Nadu in May-June ‘90, were Section I AIDS AND THE ESTABLISHMENT 10 found to be HIV positive (HIV+) by the ELISA test. However, even before the confirmatory tests could be done, the authorities doled out press statements that these women were suffering from AIDS. There is a fair chance that many of them would have tested negative with the Western Blot assay
… At the time of printing this report AIIMS still continues to refuse admission to HIV+ persons as the AIDS unit is not functioning. The item “Plight of AIDS patients – Hospitals shut their doors” (IE-8.7.90) states: “Vinit and his brother, haemophilics from birth, got infected by the AIDS causing HIV, either during repeated blood transfusions or during administration of blood products... Vinit was sent away from the Army Base Hospital and was refused admission at the AIIMS even though it has received a special grant from the Health Ministry to create an AIDS unit. 24 At the cost of tax-payers’ the Ministry had also sent several doctors abroad for training in research and treatment of AIDS. Despite this trained manpower, AIIMS unit has not been set up because doctors, technicians and nurses are refusing to care for AIDS patients. Over the last two months Vinit’s blood samples have been returned untested by laboratories, nurses have jeered at him and doctors have asked him to stay away from them.
The complete report can be read at: