Police in India commit to support community AIDS responses
11 November 2008
UNAIDS Executive Director Dr Peter Piot is visiting India this week. Thanks to government leadership, enhanced cooperation between civil society and the police could make a difference in communities across India.
Although adult HIV prevalence rate in India is low at 0.3%, still an estimated 2.4 million people are living with HIV in this the second most populous country in the world. Those most at risk of contracting the virus are people who engage in certain behaviours including buying and selling sex, injecting drugs and men who have sex with men. A complex range of social issues means they can be the people hardest to reach in society.
As they may also be criminalized by the legal system, their paths often cross with the police. This contact presents a unique opportunity for the police to act as facilitators for the provision of HIV related services to people most-at-risk.
Safer sex and drug injecting
Safer sexual and injecting practices are vital for the successful control of the HIV epidemic in India. Most HIV outreach for marginalized people is led by non-governmental (NGOs) and community based organizations. Traditionally, the police force did not work formally with civil society in India, although there have been excellent examples of police men and women coordinating with NGOs but this was on an ad hoc and personal basis.
Through successful advocacy, UNAIDS in India has proposed to the Ministry of Home Affairs to consider the value of enhancing cooperation and proactive support between the police and the agencies working with people at higher risk of HIV. With support from the police, the protection of community workers, their outreach and successful implementation of measures like condom distribution and needle exchange programmes are more assured.
In December 2007 the Ministry of Home Affairs issued an official order to all Directors General of Police to designate a Nodal officer for NGO Coordination at the state and district level. This officer is specifically tasked with engaging more closely with NGOs.
This has already been fully implemented across India in all twenty-eight states and seven Union Territories and is already seen as a major contribution to National HIV programming. By engaging with the issue of HIV and supporting prevention initiatives as part of their regular work, the police will automatically get sensitized for their own protection from the risk of HIV infection.
“The Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India has shown an extraordinary commitment to respond to HIV by introducing this unique intervention. At almost no cost, this ensures long term coordination between police and civil society in an institutionalized manner for supporting communities with prevention, treatment, care and support services and in achieving the targets of universal access,” said Mr Ranjan Dwivedi, Technical Advisor, Uniformed services and Civil Society partnerships, UNAIDS India.
This intervention by the Ministry removes the administrative cost of setting up initiatives by officers locally. As well as demonstrating the positive contribution of the police, community groups hope the measure will go a long way in assisting NGOs, not only in HIV prevention, but in other social programmes such as in the response to child abuse and violence against women.
Beyond law enforcement to proactive community support
Recently the Ministry of Home Affairs, in partnership with UNAIDS, organized four regional conferences for the newly identified nodal officers for NGO Coordination who would facilitate in rolling out of the strategy for HIV programming for uniformed services in all states. The events were an opportunity to sensitize the state police leadership as well as representatives from health departments and State AIDS control societies to plan HIV prevention initiatives in police departments together through new strategies evolved by the Ministry Of Home Affairs.
The role of the police to proactively support agencies working with most-at-risk populations was underlined, as well as their sensitive role in HIV prevention among people who buy and sell sex, inject drugs or men who have sex with other men.
Enhancing relations with the police
The community based organizations present emphasized the importance of police support in their local outreach efforts.
Kusum Jain from Gram Bharati Samiti (GBS), an NGO in Rajasthan, works closely with Rajput tribal community who by tradition practice sex work. When her organization first began to interact with the community they were chased with dogs as the people thought they had come to stop their business. With help from the local police, GBS workers over the years have built up the trust of the community who now see their only aim is to make them aware of HIV prevention that now they can work closely together.
Ms Jain believes that formalizing the role of the police in community support has enhanced their relations with the police, helping the police to be accessible and provide proactive support to agencies working on HIV prevention among most at risk populations.
A recent Asia Commission report concluded there is a vital need for political engagement and support to drive an effective AIDS response. Through this new initiative with the police, the Indian government is demonstrating such leadership.