A first step

Article Date

26 July 2012

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

For three days earlier this year, a few of my colleagues and I gave a training workshop on how to reduce stigma against people living with HIV. This of course required us to talk about HIV itself – as well as sex, sexuality and contraception. What made the training especially unique was that our audience included priests and nuns from Saint Xavier’s College in the Indian state of Gujarat.

Among them was the Rev. Lancy D’Cruz, a soft-spoken middle-aged priest and the college’s vice principal. He shared with me that he noticed faculty were reluctant to talk about HIV at the start of the training, let alone utter the words “sex” or “condom.” But by the third day, D’Cruz said he thought everyone appeared to be so comfortable, they could not stop talking about these topics.

This small shift that he observed and noted is only a first – but important – step in what ICRW aims to accomplish at Saint Xavier’s, which is in the city of Ahmedabad and one of a few private colleges in India. We hope that providing education about all types of stigma – including that against people living with HIV – will give faculty and students a roadmap for how to talk about the issue on campus.

But it’s not only in the university environment that ICRW is working. Saint Xavier’s is one of five participants in an innovative effort to incorporate a model for reducing HIV-related stigma in a variety of settings throughout India. With funding from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and in collaboration with India’s National AIDS Control Organization, ICRW is designing a blueprint to curtail HIV-related stigma in hospitals, local governing bodies and the workplace – as well as in institutions of higher learning.

Our work to curb stigma in the education setting – in this case, at Saint Xavier’s – is the first of its kind in India. But our approach is one that can be modeled elsewhere around the world, especially as stigma and discrimination continue to impede HIV prevention, testing and treatment efforts. Our research has shown that when stigma can be reduced in different settings – whether it’s a clinic or a classroom – HIV program and services are more likely to be successful.

At Saint Xavier’s we are working in a setting with a diverse student body. It even includes a group of tribal youth whose enrollment at the college represents for most the first time they’ve been exposed to a big city. Faculty at Saint Xavier’s have long realized that very often these tribal youth are discriminated against in Ahmedabad and by fellow students due to stigma attached to belonging to a different social class and speaking a tribal language. Rightly, the college has taken steps to mainstream these students with others and address the discrimination. In this regard, tackling HIV-related stigma in the educational setting is the next step forward for Saint Xavier’s.

During the training, we led D’Cruz and faculty through a curriculum that introduced them to the concepts of stigma, clarified myths around HIV transmission and engaged the faculty in a series of exercises that helped them question their attitudes and behavior around issues of gender and sexuality and minority groups.

Ultimately, ICRW is aiming to have college staff trained as master trainers on stigma who will then hold similar educational workshops on the topic with students. The goal is to permanently integrate a curriculum on reducing stigma into one of the required courses every student at Saint Xavier’s takes, irrespective of their specializations.

Along the way, we will observe how student trainers process the information and feed it to their peers. Perhaps we’ll see small changes among them, too, just like the ones D’Cruz observed with his colleagues.

Priti Prabhughate is a technical specialist at ICRW’s Asia Regional Office.