Release date
May 15, 2008
Karen Moul
Communications Officer, AIDSRelief
Baltimore, MD

Strengthening Women and Preventing AIDS

May 15, 2008, —

By Karen Moul

India recently announced some good news in the fight against HIV. New treatments and a strong government response have caused the epidemic to stabilize in much of the country. But India has the world's second-largest population, so even small percentages translate to vast numbers. In fact, more than 2.5 million Indians are living with HIV. And the epidemic varies widely in different areas of the country.

Northeast India, in particular, is struggling with the spread of the virus. The area shares a long border with several other countries and is in close proximity to Asia's infamous "Golden Triangle," where much of the world's opium is produced. The easy availability of drugs such as heroin, along with high unemployment, poverty and civil unrest, has led to widespread drug use in the area.

Women advocate for HIV treatment

Participants in the Preventing AIDS in Northeast India program advocate for universal access to treatment at a CRS-sponsored forum. Photo by CRS staff

In the face of this alarming situation, CRS created the Preventing AIDS in Northeast India (PANI) program in 2004. Over the last four years, the program has been a huge success, providing medical treatment, support and education to nearly 200,000 men and women.

'Woman's Work is Never Done'

When PANI was founded, CRS staff noticed there were few local programs designed for women. Although most intravenous drug users are men, they may pass the virus on to their wives and sexual partners. And it is women who shoulder much of the burden of the HIV epidemic. They assume the responsibility of caring for the sick, in addition to the work they already perform maintaining the household, cooking, carrying water, working in the field, and caring for children and the elderly. All that responsibility often prevents them from earning a living outside the home. The situation is even more difficult when a woman is infected with HIV and has less energy to carry out all her work.

One of the long-term goals of PANI has been to stabilize the prevalence of HIV among women and young people. Through PANI, hundreds of self-help groups have been formed to help women manage the effects of HIV. In India, there is still great stigma associated with HIV; many women are afraid to talk about it. The self-help groups offer emotional support and a sense of community. "These women feel that nobody at home understands them," says Jennifer Overton, a CRS technical advisor for HIV programs. "Through the support groups, they find acceptance and sympathetic friends."

Nearly 16,000 women have joined the PANI groups; most were referred through their local health clinic. "I've spoken with many of these women," says Overton, "and they say their greatest challenge is the financial burden in the home because they cannot work."

So some of the support groups have begun income-generating activities or small businesses. With the help of CRS and other programs in the region, the groups receive training in specific skills, such as sewing, raising silkworms, weaving, embroidery, tailoring and raising animals. They also learn basic marketing techniques to help them reach more customers. Armed with new skills and a small income, the women are able to face their busy lives with greater confidence.

With a four-year track record of success, PANI is moving into a new phase, with emphasis on care and treatment for those who need lifesaving medications. But the self-help groups will remain an integral part of the program, helping thousands of Indian women to live positively, with a little help from their friends.

Karen Moul works in the Communications department at CRS headquarters in Baltimore. She has traveled to India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand on behalf of CRS.