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Peer educators in India spread HIV/AIDS message using computers
17 September 2004

New Delhi: With AIDS cases swelling to epidemic proportions in India—more than four million people are living with HIV/AIDS—who better to educate youth about the disease than the young people working to break into India’s hottest industry, information technology.

“IT training is hot in India,” says Naveen Bhatia, Vice President of NIS Sparta, a company specializing in corporate training in leadership development. “To most educated and semi-educated Indians growing up on the daily diet of IT boom stories, a diploma in IT conjures up visions of a comfortable job and even an opportunity to settle in Europe or the United States. This flood of young women and men are the likely prime targets of concern on HIV/AIDS. But they also represent the best resource we have to mount an awareness and advocacy response needed to change human behaviour.”

Peer education and IT are the main components of Project Outreach, a novel collaboration between UNDP, NIIT—India’s largest IT training company and one of the top 15 IT training leaders worldwide—and NIS Sparta. Project Outreach, as part of a broader India Partnership Forum effort to strengthen corporate social responsibility, is focused on an HIV/AIDS initiative using to spread the message. Students in the age group of 15 and 25 were to be the target audience for the project.

The IT professionals and career seekers in sales and marketing present a group who travel the country and the world for jobs and constant upward mobility. Surveys have revealed that this group is woefully short on HIV/AIDS information that can often be the difference between life and death. This presented an opportunity for the three partners to pool in their technical expertise and mass outreach.

Romina Chongtham, an NIIT student who is now a peer educator, became involved after attending a Project Outreach workshop.

“The workshop made me recall the death of two of my friends,” says Ms. Chongtham. “They were victims of AIDS. It was shocking because they were from good families. Their life was snuffed out even before it began. I wanted to know why it happened to them but I never got the answer. This training made me realize that no one, not even me and my family is immune to HIV and AIDS. It took me no time to sign up as a peer educator,” she says.

Each peer educator is committed to creating at least 10 more. “Being IT-savvy, I started by sending e-mails to many of my friends, giving them a regular dose of shocking information and statistics on HIV and its rapid spread,” says Ms. Chongtham. “I requested them to forward the message to their respective friends and others they knew. This would create a chain-mail of sorts. I chatted online, sharing and gathering information on AIDS.”

Out of the nearly 3,000 students who took the HIV/AIDS awareness course at the NIIT centres in the National Capital Territory region of New Delhi and its adjoining satellite cities such as Faridabad, Noida and Ghaziabad, over 350 volunteered as serious peer educators, who, in turn were instrumental in reaching out to more than 20,000 people using schools, colleges, neighbourhood community centres, municipal parks and cyber cafes for the purpose.

“NIIT is actively involved in bringing about a transformation at the grassroots by using training in information technology as a platform for mainstreaming HIV/AIDS awareness, in the process, caring, successful and socially responsible youth,” says Rajender Pawar, NIIT chairman and founder. "My company works with UNDP to create efficient methods of HIV/AIDS-related outreach, keeping the costs affordable and reaching out to the largest possible numbers.”

NIS Sparta CEO Sanjeev Duggal, who says prevention is the only way to eradicate the disease, adds that the association of UNDP with NIS Sparta, besides being educative, “is also enabling the youth to be non-discriminatory and more humane in their approach to HIV and AIDS and the people affected by it.”

The success of the programme has prompted major government organizations such as the Indian Railways, the Delhi Police and some corporations to come calling on NIS Sparta for training support for their vast workforce and to include an HIV/AIDS component in each of these programmes. Project Outreach is set to expand to NIIT centres across India covering over 600,000 students, police personnel, railway employees and students from other schools.

By Kumar M Tiku, Communications Officer, UNDP India

From: Choices, September 2004