HIV/AIDS Awareness Group Tells India to "Wake Up"

by Annie Brown

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday October 8, 2010


The Indian organization Wake Up Pune was in the news recently for a protest they held to demand more awareness for HIV/AIDS in the city of Pune. Pune is located in the state of Mahastra, about 150km (2 and a half hours drive) from Mumbai, also a city in Maharastra. There are about 2.3 million people living with HIV/AIDS in India. In the state of Maharastra there are currently 4,19,982 AIDS patients registered. About a quarter of those people have registered since 2007. According to Wake Up Pune's website, Pune ranks among the top five highest prevalance rates of HIV in the state of Maharastra.

I recently interviewed Chris Venables, a volunteer at Wake Up Pune, a collaborative project formed to prevent new cases of HIV and promote equality among the general population of Pune. Chris also volunteers at Wake Up Pune's partner organisation, the 'Deep Driha Society', a community-based NGO working to alleviate poverty in the slums of Pune. Chris's official title is coordinator at Wake Up Pune (WUP). As coordinator, he is part of a core team of volunteers who look after the day-to-day running of the organization. Currently Chris and one other volunteer run Wake Up Pune.

Wake Up Pune is one example of the many small, yet effective, local organizations trying to end the current epidemic of AIDS in India. Although large foreign-based NGOs and governments are important in the fight against AIDS in India, it is important to highlight the very important work Indian people are doing in their own communities. Chris' inspiring answers are a testimet to local volunteers and small organizations, who work hard everyday to sustain community programs developed to reduce HIV/AIDS prevalence.

Edge Magazine: What is Wake Up Pune?

Chris Venables: Wake Up Pune was founded in 2006 as a collaborative campaign of NGOs and youth working together to spread HIV awareness and to fight the stigma and discrimination faced by people living with HIV.

While Wake Up Pune partner NGOs were making progress within their target groups (Sex Workers, Injecting Drug Users, Slum-dwellers, etc.), there remained a pervasive silence surrounding HIV-related issues among the general public. We realized that to effectively break the cycle of stigma and discrimination (silence, ignorance, fear, stigma, discrimination, silence and so on) we had to combine our efforts and saturate the city with an 'HIV Positive' message (positive about awareness, education, support). Pune was asleep to the reality of HIV and we needed to shake it out of its ignorance.

EM: What population does Wake Up Pune serve?

CV: Our target community is the population of the city of Pune. HIV does not discriminate, it affects all sectors of society, so we too target all sectors of society.

EM: What are some of the organization's most successful projects?

CV: Wake Up Pune itself runs events every week, these run alongside the work done everyday by our partner organisations. Our 'HIV Positive Bootcamps' are held every other Sunday; they are open to anyone, and are a chance to learn about HIV and its place in India. We talk about the virus, how it works, treatment options, as well as the social aspects of the virus, the stigma and discrimination.

The workshop involves drama, games and activities to get people thinking about their own prejudices, and about how society works to isolate those with HIV. The 'HIV Positive Bootcamps' are the easiest ways for volunteers to get involved with WUP, and are also the easiest way for them to continue to be involved - they can run their own bootcamps in their community, i.e. school, workplace, housing society.

We also run an anonymous help-email for anyone with questions about HIV, these usually revolve around chances of being infected and how people go about getting tested. The answers to these questions are answered by a doctor who volunteers with WUP, they are then checked by the coordinator and the reply is sent.

EM: What is an event that has special significance to you?

CV: On the 1st of August 2010, Wake Up Pune held a speed-dating event for people living with HIV (PLHIV). The aim of the day-long event was to provide a platform for PLHIV to find loving and supporting relationships. A loving and supporting relationship can be important in living a long and healthy life with HIV.

We were pleased to welcome over 150 people living with HIV present at the event, including around 50 women. The positive candidates were joined by a similar number of family members, all keen to meet prospective partners and to scout out partners for their kin.

The event was a mixture of age-old traditions and the modern world - it was dating disguised in a traditional meeting. In a country like India, where arranged marriages are still the norm, we provided an open and transparent atmosphere for people to seek out their life partner. We provided a platform in which people from different religions, castes and age-groups mixed with each other to find hope for a better life.

For many others who did not find partners the event was a chance to meet other PLHIV; an invaluable and life-changing experience. Mixing with others who face the same challenges and have shared similar experiences gives people hope. Perhaps more important is that act of publicly announcing ones status as HIV positive, for many it was the first time they had done this. For me it felt amazing to be part of something so positive, and to see the courage and bravery of the people living with HIV who attended the event.

EM: Why is it important to educate people in Pune about HIV/AIDS?

CV: In Maharashtra state, Pune is a second largest city, only after Mumbai, in terms of HIV prevalence. Its a rapidly growing city with a huge student population and large population of migrant workers. Its very important to raise awareness about sex, STIs and HIV, as well as to reduce social stigma so that we can help protect people from unsafe behaviour. We want to make people aware that HIV is prevalent in every section of society - therefore, we promote a safe and healthy sex life.

EM: On August 26, 2010, Wake Up Pune held a protest at Pune's City Center. Why did Wake Up Pune decide to protest?

CV: The recent protest was a part of the United Nations International Youth Day; being a youth-led organisation we decided it was important for us to take part. The theme of the day was '"Dialogue and Mutual Understanding" which fits in well with our main ideas about how to fight HIV and the discrimination surrounding it in India.

The best moment of the event was when everyone present read out loud a pledge saying that we should recognise the rights of people living with HIV in India as well as continuing the fight against the spread of the virus. The pledge was read out loud by a local government official, then repeated by the crowd before the really started.

The reaction of the public was generally good, we speak to as many people as we can and hand out our leaflets and condoms. One of the organisers was the local Maharastra State AIDS Control Society (MSACS). This gave the rally a certain degree of officiallity as this body is part of a national government programme. Many people were shocked by the t-shirt that Wake Up Pune volunteers wore - they have written on the front in bold letters 'HIV Positive'. The message is that we need to positive about HIV, many do not immediately understand this, so the t-shirt is a useful tool for starting conversation and to get people talking.

EM: In your opinion, was the protest a success or failure?

CV: The awareness rally was certainly a success, though not the biggest success by any means of WUP. It was a success because of the numbers attending as well as the impact the banners, slogans and flyers had on the general public.

Our goal is awareness, and though often hard to measure, in some cases we can say clearly that our efforts were worthwhile. In marches and rallies our volunteers speak to people who question what we're doing, we always take the opportunity to spread the message about HIV. There was a lot shouting and singing, many of the chants included words like sex, or condoms. In a country where talking about sex or condoms is still a taboo, its important that we break the silence.

EM: How are local groups like Wake Up Pune important to ending the global AIDS epidemic?

CV: If anyone searches "HIV Positive shirt" on google from all over the world, our website is the first result in images section. By providing useful knowledge through the website, we try to spread awareness about HIV and safe sex as much as we can. Also, we have conducted a lot of innovative campaigns and events in the past, and our past events section has been an inspiration to other organizations to conduct similar events. Taking part in these events helps to support the global movement for the reduction of HIV and AIDS.

Wake Up Pune has been almost entirely run by volunteers without any specific funding, only the support of different NGOs. In spite of the constant uncertainty about the direction and structure, Wake Up Pune is still going strong and reaching its objective to spread awareness about HIV. Its a really good blueprint for organizations in other cities to come together under one umbrella to reach the objectives. To reach the global objective to end the epidemic, we need local organizations to strengthen their efforts by working together to promote awareness by leveraging knowledge about local tastes, local festivals & community mindset.

EM: How does your group respond to foreign aid and intervention concerning the issue of HIV/AIDS?

CV: At the end of the day, the people who benefit don't care about how they benefit as long as they get a better life. The main issue is corruption. There have been incidences by some NGOs in the city where most of the aid has been used for personal advantage by diverting funds than for the cause itself. So, more support will be ideal but it should come with better monitoring and accountability.

EM: How does your group respond to foreign Non-Governmental Organizations who involve themselves in the issue of HIV/AIDS in India?

CV: Our goal is the elimination of the stigma, discrimination, ignorance and fear that surround HIV and AIDS in India. We support the efforts of any organisation that pursues the same objective in a sensitive and accountable way.

EM: Will people "wake up" to the importance of HIV/AIDS prevention in Pune, and in India as a whole?

CV: Any change takes time, especially in India but we have already seen a positive change in the society. There is still a lot of stigma and discrimination but we have seen a marked change in people's behavior in last couple of years. We see people around the city wearing our t-shirts, and we hear people talking about HIV. That gives us hope that our work is worth while and gives us the strength to keep taking the small, but important steps in the fight against HIV in India.

To learn more about Wake Up Pune, visit




Annie grew up in Washington, DC and at present, does most of her journalism and activism work in Virginia. She has worked for independent publications in both the United States and India. Annie is currently a writer and sexual health educator in Richmond, Virginia.