News Stories, 3 December 2007
DANG, Nepal, December 3 (UNHCR) – The UN refugee agency is working on several new projects – including one using street theatre – aimed at improving awareness about HIV and AIDS among people affected by conflict, sex workers and injecting drug users in Nepal.
The street theatre project began in July and is being piloted in five districts – Ilam and Panchthar in the east and Dang, Jumla, Banke and Jakarkot in the west – by Maiti Nepal, one of the non-governmental partners helping to implement UNHCR's HIV awareness campaign.
"Do you know what is HIV/AIDS," Maiti Nepal's Santona Devkota asked the curious and enthusiastic audience gathered for one of the shows in a busy marketplace in Dang district.
A young girl dancing to the music of a popular Nepalese song warmed up the crowd before the street drama began. The performers told the tale of two village boys who head off to India in search of work. The boys get distracted by the other attractions of the big city, visiting a brothel and becoming infected with HIV.
The locals were able to identify with the story, which made its message that much more powerful. "This story is so true," said Tara as she watched with her friends. "In our village, a few young boys also left and returned with HIV."
"Street drama is a popular and powerful medium to spread awareness on any issue, particularly on a subject like HIV/AIDS," Santona noted as she handed out leaflets on HIV and AIDS. "People prefer this kind of show to speeches."
The refugee agency's HIV programme is funded by the British government through UNAIDS and was launched after a joint-United Nations assessment a year ago found there was a pressing need for better coverage of HIV prevention activities in conflict-affected populations. Nepal is emerging from years of conflict.
"Being the lead technical organization for HIV among refugees and internally displaced persons, we have an important contribution to make," said Abraham Abraham, UNHCR representative in Nepal. "HIV and AIDS awareness can go a long way to provide early protection and prevention of HIV among all population groups."
Another of the UNHCR awareness projects targets female sex workers in the western district of Banke, where implementing partner General Welfare Pratisthan (GWP) has trained and mobilized some 20 female sex workers as peer educators.
"The reason for mobilizing them as peer educators is because they know the target group and can talk to them about HIV and AIDS and build their skills to protect themselves," said Apsara Khanal, a GWP outreach worker.
GWP has also established counselling centres where people can access information on HIV and AIDS. "In our community people find it hard to discuss HIV and AIDS openly," said Meena Gurung, a GWP staff member at a counselling centre in the town of Nepalgunj. "With the opening of these centres, some 12-13 people come for advice and information every day."
Injecting drug users are another high-risk group targeted by the UNHCR programme in Ilam district, where implementing partner Knight Chess Club has opened two information centres and one voluntary counselling and testing centre. The UN refugee agency is also helping to promote condom distribution among conflict-affected population groups in 15 districts in Nepal.
Meanwhile, the agency has set up free voluntary counselling and testing centres in seven eastern Nepal camps for refugees originating from Bhutan. UNHCR encourages refugees and locals to come forward for voluntary testing.
By Nini Gurung in Dang, Nepal