HIV awareness communication is wholly inadequate

HIV awareness communication is wholly inadequate

Ever since the first case of HIV was detected in Chennai over 20 years ago, there has been a sustained and consistent effort to build awareness on HIV and AIDS.  That 'Information is the only Prevention' is a premise that has promoted several, and indeed all, campaigns aimed at building awareness on HIV.

In order to provide information and build awareness on HIV, tomes of material have been developed by any, and, perhaps all, agencies engaged in working on HIV.  Most of these are designed with reference to the specific target audiences. So there are games and comics for youth (snakes and ladders being a favourite), films and songs, and the ubiquitous posters, brochures, hoardings and banners for the public (any number and more).

The material developed is frequently referred to as IEC, an oft-used term that stands for information, education and communication, aimed at raising awareness. Supporting this is another range of material which is termed as BCC (behaviour change communication) which is aimed at changing habits and behaviour.  A review of the financial outlays illustrates that international and national agencies working on awareness building spend undetermined amounts of money on communication activities and products each year. In Karnataka, the budget outlay for the IEC component at KSAPS alone for 2009-10 stands at a whopping Rs 441 lakhs. The same amount was budgeted in the last financial year as well as the previous year. 

Alongside, several agencies have been working to develop guidelines on reporting on HIV and AIDS for the mainstream media.  These have been developed by expert groups through a process of reflection and consultation on the basic premises which need to govern all communication on HIV. 

Carefully formulated and precise in nature, the guidelines rest on sound concepts in relation to the treatment of PLWHAs -- both medically and socially. Principles related to stigma and discrimination, confidentially, informed consent and use of appropriate terminology are some of the key premises developed at different forums for use by, not only the mainstream media, but by all agencies working on building awareness on HIV.
These guidelines have been shared at training programmes, orientation workshops, sensitisation programmes, discussion forums and even adopted by the Press Council of India as mandatory for all media professionals. State level organisation have gone a step further and translated this for use by regional language media. Media manuals and updated factsheets have  been published at regular intervals, on request of journalists and media professionals.

The combined efforts have almost led to a point of fatigue in the media.   "Not again" say journalists when they are nominated for yet another HIV media sensitisation  programme.  Advertising agencies carefully place the media manuals on their book  shelves.  And then let it rest there. And the forums go begging for participation…"We know it all," is the attitude.  Yet last month has drawn attention to a startling case in Tamil Nadu where a series of hoardings and posters appeared all over Chennai. Produced by Sasi Advertising Agency, an  agency in Chennai for Tamil Nadu State AIDS Control Authority (TANSACA), a series of large flex signage on HIV and AIDS were mounted on outdoor hoardings -- which used the face of a mother and child. 

This was done without her knowledge, and obviously her consent. That the duo are not even HIV+ is even more damning.  When the young woman, Thilakavathi, petitioned the High Court that her pictures were used without her consent and that she and her family were being socially ostracised by the community (on unfair grounds), the Madras High Court ordered the removal all the hoardings and posters.  Thilakavathi has subsequently sued the TANSACA for Rs1 crore as compensation and been forced to relocate their home. What does this suggest? Quite obviously, despite the vast amounts of monies spent on IEC and media manuals, something is still incomplete. If communication programmes are assessed in terms of material targets and numbers produced, yes the money has been well spent. That is, if the objective of the IEC component is to spend money.  But, if the objective of the IEC spending is to build awareness on the issue, then a closer re-look is required.  

Is there is a need to revisit and refresh the stereotypes that has seeped back into the mindsets of the communication agencies and media practitioners? The importance to both, know and practice, the 'dos and don'ts' of the game needs to be re-emphasised by the Thilakavathis. Perhaps even consider introducing a process of review by PLWHAs themselves. For, unless the communication is correct, the effort at communication will be missing the wood for the trees.