Monday, September 08, 2008

Women Migrants and their Sexual Health in Jammu and Kashmir

Anju Munshi

Displacement for women provides a fertile ground for the worst kind of social economic and viral epidemics and this is proved true when we turn our attention towards the migrant camps in Jammu.

These are women who are going through financial crisis, mental trauma, flesh trade and social stigma, in that order. Sex scams are religiously reported but not many want to know what leads to all this. It is the family's needs that put them under compulsion. Health, education, marriages mean money and how much do the rehabilitation packages offer. Jobs are very hard to come by. In the absence of an organised health awareness campaigns or the non governmental organisations making an effort , the threat of HIV/AIDS is looming large in the camps of the valley and the inmates of the camps have no clue about AIDS, so much so that one young sex worker belonging to a camp in muthi asked rather innocently if AIDS was contagious and if she could take antibiotics .In the meantime HIV is stealthily marching into the valley using two important carrier modes, that of ignorance and government apathy .

In February of last year, Jammu &Kashmir has reported six times increase in the number of AIDS cases compared to previous year. According to figures provided by the state government to New Delhi, 211cases of AIDS were reported in the region in 2007compared to 34 cases in 2006. The government also reported 42 AIDS deaths in 2007. ---The figures forthe previous years were not available. The data from the migrant's camps isn't available for no one visits the people that side; no counselling and no dissemination of information of any kind exists.

Women in camps with special reference to Jammu and Kashmir have just been dumped with no thought for their well-being, their physical and mental health.. It is an accepted fact that vulnerability in displaced people is high and one doesn't have to wait for things and epidemics to go out of hand and then sound an alert. It is also known that 'HIV/AIDS spreads among displaced migrants due to increased contact with outsiders and dramatic social change', says Survival International, a human rights organization formed in 1969 .The fact of the matter is that HIV/AIDS threat looms large in the camps that accommodate almost 5000 families with women numbering to at least two thousand. . Jammu and Kashmir might well be face to face with the ominous portents of the killer disease for more than one reason

The National AIDS Control Organization (NACO),further confirms and says that the state of J&K has 14,589 [2006]HIV patients with a sizeable number being in Kashmir and a large number has unfortunately gone unreported due to the social stigma attached to this disease.

Says Dr. K.L.Chowdhury doctor and a social activist of the Shiriya Bhatt Mission hospital in Jammu, "in the last eighteen years no NGO has bothered to come and sensitize the inmates on various health issues."

Dr. M A Wani, project director of JKAPCS [Jammu and Kashmir Aids Preventive Control Society ]said that "mass awareness must be generated about the disease and its preventive measures, which is the best strategy to tackle the menace of the disease".

How does one do that in the absence of any kind of an awareness campaigns, related to women's health and HIV /AID information?

Ms.Neerja Mattoo and Dr. Shakti Bhan, both associated with Daughters Of Vitasta ,female wing of Panun Kashmir say that 'these camps are unsafe for women there have been raped and killed and many girls have committed suicides .'

We see huge amount of funds released worldwide to bring in an awareness but surprisingly nothing gets it close to the valley. lack of committed NGOs and voluntary organizations in the State that would have otherwise augmented the awareness drive and helped the State government in implementing the AIDS awareness programme is compounding the problem . In West Bengal Aids prevention has a new ambassador Bula Di "di" is a Bengali suffix (short form of "didi") which means elder sister. You can see her in billboards around the city teaching about AIDS in no uncertain terms. She informs through simulated dialogs how drug abuse , unsafe sex or blood transfusion could lead to AIDS.

In Mumbai Ashley Judd, who is Global Ambassador for Youth AIDS, has been doing her bit to promote AIDS awareness along with other stars of bollywood.Similarly in Chennai the red ribbon express is going into villages and spreading the awareness. As against all this, there has never been any data collection in the migrant camps ,no one visits the people that side; no counselling and no dissemination of information of any kind exists... Add to this the fact that several languages and dialects are spoken in the state - Kashmiri, Urdu, Dogri, Punjabi, Ladakhi, Pahari and Gujjari – "it's even more challenging to accomplish minor tasks like developing video films, songs and posters,' say experts in this field.. Consequently disseminating information and spreading awareness about the disease have not been an easy task.

An independent study conducted by Jammu-based clinical immunologist Anil Mahajan notes that HIV/AIDS in the state is no longer a low prevalence disease.

False Promises

At the national level a number of studies have been conducted to bring in awareness about HIV/AIDS, but hardly any in Jammu camps..

'Existing NACO (National AIDS Control Organisation) guidelines do not provide costing and implementation of the Targeted Intervention (TI) programme for migrant labourers in a systematic manner, which for example is the second highest risk group in Jammu and Kashmir,' confirms Wani.

Albina du Boisrouvray closely associated with FXB an NGO ,came to India as part of French President Nicolas Sarkozy's delegation and announced that five villages would be set up to look after the HIV orphans, start income-generating activities, education healthcare support etc, publicly announcing to adopt West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Mizoram and Manipur. Kashmir was not mentioned. Lack of money should not be a deterrent, especially when FXB's India budget for the 2008 calendar year is $1.3 million.

On January 17th 2008, the union cabinet approved the creation of a joint secretary post to oversee the multi-billion rupee National AIDS Control Programme (Phase-III). Information and Broadcasting Minister Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi was categoric in saying that things would move on not only on national but international level.

Even though India's Minister of State for Health & Family Welfare, Panabaaka Lakshmi said Phase III of the National AIDS Control Programme has been formulated to control the spread of HIV by up scaling targeted interventions among the high risk groups, not much can be seen even though the camps fit the high risk group for many reasons.

Common people in the valley still don't know the exact causes of this disease nor do they know the difference between HIV and AIDS. The health dept in Kashmir needs to do more than just put burden on the religious scholars and Imams who can only have a limited impact in this regard. Dr. KL Chowdhury, , a doctor social activist, and human rights crusader , the man behind Shriya Bhatt Mission Hospital and Research Center at Jammu , that addresses the problems of Health Trauma of Kashmiris displaced from the valley of Kashmir in the wake of terrorism, says that he did not know of anyone with HIV symptoms in the migrant camps for they dont get tested for lack of testing facilities , even if there are , they don't get reported for fear of being discriminated and shunned , but that doesn't mean that they don't need awareness." He did agree that promiscuity is prevalent in the camps. He strongly recommends counselling and increased ways of communication for improved awareness, expanding testing services in the state. "Counseling ,discussions ,open forums and also sociologists visiting the camps could stir up things and set the stage for a new start. It is time for serious negotiations ,for the state of women inmates of the migrant camps need serious attention and thought, for education is always an intelligent investment."

Fact File

1. There is a strong social stigma and a large number of these cases has unfortunately gone unreported.

2. Facilities to get blood tested for Aids is limited to a few centers. Facilities for testing blood for HIV before transfusion are available only at main hospitals in both J&K but this isn't extended to places like Rajouri-Poonch, Kupwara and Baramulla.

3 Discreet enquiries revealed that the foreign terrorists have an access in exploiting the girls who are border migrants, in camps close to the borders There were an even larger number of young boys with this dreaded infection..

Reasons to Worry

1.The State has huge concentration of military and paramilitary forces, who are another high risk groups.

2. The ongoing militancy has also increased the number of people needing blood transfusion. .

3. A study conducted in Kashmir has shown the social change and new social order has been responsible to some extent for the problem of aging brides.-a risk for indulging in risky sexual behaviors.

4. Lack of committed NGOs and voluntary organizations in the State that would have otherwise augmented the awareness drive and helped the State government in implementing the AIDS awareness programme is compounding the problem.

5 In addition, difficult terrain, socio cultural diversity and low literacy pose tough challenges to disseminate information and spreading awareness about the disease in the State. .

It would be hazardous to shy away from the harsh realities that stare into our face.

The problem is now beginning to acquire such disturbing proportions that there is an urgent need to sound an AIDS alert in this state.


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