Local initiatives push for change in India

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Local initiatives push for change in India

18 December 2006

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Photo credits : UNAIDS/M. Jensen

Political leaders in the north Indian State of Bihar were urged to rapidly scale up HIV awareness, prevention, care and support by AIDS leaders from the United Kingdom and the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) during a special joint delegation visit on Saturday 16 December. At the same time, the delegation commended the commitment in the State to achieving these aims.

On a one-day visit to Bihar at the invitation of the State Government of Bihar, Sir Suma Chakrabarti, Permanent Secretary, Department for International Development (DFID) of the United Kingdom and Dr Peter Piot, Executive Director of UNAIDS, met with key political figures and visited the University. The joint delegation commended the political leaders’ resolve to fight AIDS and called for sustained political commitment, greater support from development partners and continued participation of elected representatives in strengthening a decentralized response to the HIV epidemic.

The joint mission was an opportunity to explore how local responses to the AIDS epidemic can be supported and strengthened through initiatives that are locally sensitive and aligned with commitments made at the global level.

In July 2006, Bihar became the first north Indian state to establish a legislative forum with a formal constitution and institutional mechanism for elected representatives to address AIDS issues in the State. The “Bihar Legislative Forum on HIV and AIDS” was launched as a way to raise awareness among political leaders in the State at all levels and to support a stronger capacity of all sectors to address the challenges posed by AIDS.

Since the inception of the forum, Bihar leaders have been advocating this approach with their political peers. Six other states in the northern region of India have now committed themselves to replicate the Bihar model. However, it was emphasized that leaders’ commitment is only one of the steps for a successful AIDS response.

In his speech at the Bihar Legislative Assembly, Dr. Peter Piot indicated that the state had to face “the challenge of strong leadership, management and coordination of all AIDS activities and the challenge of reaching ALL of Bihar’s people to effectively prevent and treat HIV infection.”

Sir Suma Chakrabarti emphasized that “action is needed to spread accurate messages so that people, especially women, can protect themselves. Action is also urgently needed to tackle stigma and discrimination faced by people living with HIV.”

As part of the visit, the joint delegation met representatives of the government, the legislature, civil society, United Nations staff and donor agencies to explore ways to improve the coordination of resources for AIDS control at all levels. The delegation recommended that the technical and financial resources of development partners be pooled to ensure that the Bihar AIDS response keeps pace with the evolving nature of the epidemic, and to ensure that technical and financial support is in line with the needs of the State AIDS Control Society to reach all high risk groups. “The State AIDS Control Society should regularly inform you, the people’s representatives, on the progress of the HIV control programme in Bihar,” argued Dr. Peter Piot, in speaking to the Bihar Legislative Forum.

Although Bihar’s HIV prevalence rate is lower than the national HIV prevalence rate of 0.9%, the social drivers of the epidemic make it particularly vulnerable. One in six people are migrating to urban centres in search of work and a better standard of living. Wide-spread stigma and misconceptions are causing marginalization and exclusion. The state’s vulnerabilities are compounded with a backdrop of increasing levels of sex work and low levels of condom use.

During the visit to Bihar, the joint delegation emphasized the need for a muti-sectoral response, including HIV prevention, treatment, care and support. Nothing less than such a comprehensive response can ensure that all people living with HIV and all those people at high risk of infection have access to vital HIV services. DFID and UNAIDS underlined their support to Bihar in its continuous efforts to control the AIDS epidemic.

The one-day visit to Bihar was part of a wider joint DFID / UNAIDS mission to India in which Dr Piot and Sir Chackrabarti will also meet with political leaders, senior government officials and parliamentarians, students and representatives from non governmental organizations and from the donor community in Delhi.