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Breaking the silence: Red Ribbon Express in Lucknow.

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Breaking the silence


The Red Ribbon Express spreads the message of HIV awareness,

prevention, countering stigma and life after HIV around the


Countering the stigma of AIDS: The Red Ribbon Express receives an

enthusiastic response in Lucknow.

The train is painted a cheerful sunshine yellow with a hint of blue

and red. The tagline says " Uniting India Against AIDS. Zindagi

Zindabad " . `Celebrate Life' is an appropriate tagline for the train

that communicates the compl exity of HIV: Everyone is vulnerable, yet

it is preventable. HIV is not about morality; countering stigma

against people living with HIV is integral to HIV prevention.

It is day 42 since the Red Ribbon Express was flagged off from New

Delhi Railway Station on December 1, 2007. It has just entered

Lucknow where it will halt for two days. It receives a jubilant

welcome. Local NGOs have set up a small exhibition space around the

platform. It is mid-morning and the queues are getting longer. Young

men are in majority. The train is attractive, looks interesting, and

curious crowds are growing.

The energy is youthful. Those in the driver's seat — quite literally —

are young people themselves. Mohan Singh Rana, CEO of the Red Ribbon

Express who will be on board through its journey, is all of 27. Nehru

Yuva Kendra's volunteers play a critical role in outreach and

mobilisation, as they travel in the train and at every halt go

cycling into nearby villages spreading HIV awareness through nukkad

nataks and skits.

Daunting scale

One year, 22 States, 70,000 km: The sheer scale of the project is

overwhelming. During the course of its journey, the train will criss-

cross the length and breadth of the country making 180 halts (in 180

districts), language changing 11 times over, before it returns to New

Delhi on December 1, 2008.

Like a messenger of peace and goodwill, the train brings HIV

information wherever it goes. From touch-screen to bicycle, it uses a

synergy of technology and interpersonal communication to reach out.

It has daunting challenges to meet. For one, HIV is a complex issue

with many links — science, women's vulnerability, reproductive

health, sexuality, migration… The country is diverse with dialects

changing every few 100 miles. The audience is varied — men, women,

urban, rural, literates, neo-literates. And yet, there is something

about the sheer spirit and energy that seems to bring everything

together. According to CEO Rana, an average of 3,000-4,000 people

visit the train each day. The response has been overwhelming.

Communication design

The first three coaches containing the exhibition use a communication

style that is highly interactive packaged as infotainment. The touch-

screen games, audiovisuals, interactive models make the exhibit

extremely attractive to a young audience. There are music videos and

PSAs (public service advertisements) featuring youth icons, actors

and cricketers.

There is basic information: What is HIV, how it spreads, how to

protect oneself. A map shows HIV prevalence across States and

districts and national response to the epidemic. There is information

on the National Rural Health Mission; HIV and reproductive health,

why pregnant women should test for HIV.

UNICEF and ad agency JWT have ensured that communication is simple

without being simplistic; no small challenge when it comes to an

issue as complex as HIV. K. Beena, UNICEF, Lucknow, explains that as

the train travels across the country, the visuals will remain the

same while the language changes 11 times over. " That is why we

ensured the visuals have faces representing different parts of the

country, " she says.

There is no reference to high-risk groups, perhaps to consciously

emphasise that everyone is vulnerable and not only certain population


A coach designed as a 60-seater auditorium is meant for in-depth

training for cohesive groups such as healthcare providers and elected

representatives. Male/female doctors and counsellors are also on

board. The live training sessions are designed for a cohesive group —

doctors, district officials, teachers... The intention is that, as

leaders, these people become more aware and can further ignite HIV

awareness among the communities they work with. The live nature of

the training helps dispel doubts.

Easily the most powerful part of the training is an experience shared

by an HIV positive speaker who represents the State network of people

living with HIV. In Lucknow, a confident 30-year-old Radha, President

of the Faizabad Network, spoke of losing her son and husband to HIV,

being thrown out of in-laws' home and how the Network supported her.

The survivor of many battles says she is committed towards HIV

awareness and prevention, and dispelling fears in people's minds

because " I don't want anyone else to go through what I had to go

through. "

Radha's share reminds me of Ashok Pillai, one of the pioneers among

positive leadership in India, when he pointed out years ago " Unless

people meet those with HIV how will they believe the problem is

real? "

Audience response

Young people show an enthusiastic response; the tech-savvy nature of

the exhibits is clearly working well. A group of young college girls

said they were inspired and moved by Radha's experience and sharing.

As NSS volunteers, they have been part of HIV awareness programmes


There were students and researchers interested in the issue: A young

man pursuing a diploma on HIV; another doing a research on

opportunistic infections. A young woman from Dimapur working with an

NGO in Gorakhpur was glad to know the language will change when the

train reaches the North-east.

Women were remarkably few and far between. One woman said she came

with a male member of the family. She's fascinated and excited; this

was all new to her. And yes, she says, women don't come on their own;

they hesitate.

Meanwhile, a train stops on the next track and young men, barely 20,

en route to Rae Bareilly cross the platform and wander in. Clearly,

the audience is diverse — from those working on the issue and

associated with it, to college students, to the wanderer. There's

something for all.

Spreading the word

The train is an interesting partnership between various ministries

and departments such as National AIDS Control Organisation, the

Railways, Youth Affairs. Various colleges, women's groups and

departments have been mobilised to encourage people to attend the


While the train is stationed on the platform, a range of activities

happen across the district. At every halt, NYK volunteers cycle to

neighbouring villages in teams of 6-8, each team covering four

villages a day doing nukkad nataks and skits. Where the train halts

for more than a day, cyclists spend the night in the village. More

than 43,000 villages will be covered through the year. In addition,

there are two buses with a mobile exhibition covering the district's


Rana says managing crowds at the platform sometimes becomes a

challenge. The coaches have a limited capacity, viewing exhibits

require time and attention. At some places such as Pratapgarh in

Uttar Pradesh the response was so good he extended closing time from

5.30 pm to 8 pm. " But I cannot do it at every halt — we have to run

366 days, " he says. Perhaps platform activities need to be such that

learning begins even as people begin to queue.

At Lucknow, there were very few women visitors. Most came as part of

a group from a college; while some came accompanied by male

relatives. The train may need to examine if the majority male crowd

discourages women from coming by themselves. Perhaps a reserved

viewing time for women may be required at some halts.

The train is presently travelling across the Hindi belt. Crossing

Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, parts of Maharashtra and Chattisgarh, it

is presently in Uttar Pradesh. From here, it heads to Uttaranchal,

Jharkhand, and Bihar before reaching Guwahati on March 8, when the

language will change for the first time to Assamese.

Twenty-two years into the epidemic in India, and people across

quarters are finally talking about HIV. The silence is broken. It's a

big step.


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