Spotlight on AIDS awareness

In a small house in the town of Gowribidanur, a family crisis is taking place. Leela has just told her parents that she’s HIV positive. Her mother is shocked and disgusted. In spite of Leela’s father’s pleas, her mother throws her out of the house to fend for herself.
This could well be a typical scene in any village in Karnataka, but today Leela is in luck. At this crucial juncture in her life, her father turns to a group of audience members and asks them what Leela’s next step should be. First hesitant and then more vociferously, the audience offers Leela suggestions. “You can get referred to a clinic in Chikballapur.” “You must go for counseling.” “You need to get your CD4 count checked.”  

Raising awareness on HIV
This is the story of Magnet Theatre, a revolutionary community theatre that is raising awareness on HIV-related issues in Karnataka. Off stage, Leela is a hijra called Rani and all the audience members are also hijras or gay men.
Over the last three years, Leela’s story and many more like it have helped mobilise and transform one of Karnataka's most hidden groups. Hidden, but not insignificant.
According to National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO) 2007 sentinel surveillance, Karnataka has the country’s highest HIV prevalence amongst gays and hijras at 17.6 per cent.

Magnet Theatre was first established in Kenya, and was later introduced to India by an NGO called PATH. Today, thanks to a partnership with a local organisation called the Mysore Resettlement and Development Agency (MYRADA), it has reached out to nearly 1,000 hijras and gay men in Kolar and Chikballapur districts alone. It is called Magnet simply for its capacity to pull in the crowds. 

Nandinee Bandyopadhyay, Associate Director, HIV, PATH, India, describes how Magnet actually works. “A dilemma is portrayed and the performance freezes, allowing the audience to act out and test their own solutions. In the context of HIV, it is designed to help affected communities discuss why they engage in risky practices; to address issues of stigma and rights; and to explore appropriate ways to reduce such practices and access prevention, care and treatments services.”

Peer educators
As the drama develops, a soft-spoken man in the corner of the tiny room listens intently. His bright eyes follow every movement of the actors and he breaks into a grin at a lighthearted moment in the play. Twenty-eight-year-old Ranjit is a stone mason from Gowribidanur and much more than just an audience member. He was diagnosed as HIV positive two years ago and since then has played a pivotal role in the growth of Magnet Theatre in his region. He has worked as a peer educator, reaching out to other members of the community and has encouraged 15 of his community members to attend a Magnet Theatre performance.

“I like coming here and seeing the newcomers learn more about such an important issue. I don’t want anyone else to go through what I have.”
Ranjit’s role illustrates an important feature of Magnet. The key to its success is the level of ownership it gives to the participating community: audience members who go on to join Magnet come up with the ideas for scripts themselves based on their own past experiences. This empowering, yet informal, setting also gives many men the confidence to come out as gay in their own community.

The Magnet process begins with a peer educator from the community visiting towns where there is a high population of hijras and gay men.
He then spreads the word about Magnet and invites them to watch the play, which often takes place at the MYRADA office in each taluk. After attending the performance, the newest members of the audience are encouraged to register with the organisation and take advantage of a host of health and counseling services.
“Our biggest success story was when we were able to register more than 400 new members in just 45 days, thanks to Magnet Theatre,” says Venkatesh B K, the District Programme Coordinator for MYRADA in Kolar.

“It provides a platform for the community to get together and overcome stigma and discrimination. They just love it. They have a great level of comfort with it.”
Up on stage, 30-year-old Mani is another example of the transformational nature of Magnet. A cast member, he plays Leela’s partner in the drama. Mani doesn’t remember when he was diagnosed HIV positive, but he says all that matters now is spreading the right message to others like him. “This theatre form allows us to give a lot of information to our community members. For example, many of my friends were having unsafe sex but after attending Magnet Theatre, they have started using condoms.”

(Some names have been changed to protect identities)

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