'Do you have AIDS? Why are you so concerned about this otherwise? Do you get any money for doing this?' It's disgusting - these are the kind of questions we have to face from our own villagers," says Vishnu, 20. Vishnu is an undergraduate student and an active member of the Village AIDS Awareness Club (VAAC) in his village, Banigandlapadu, in Khammam district of Andhra Pradesh. He is alternately dismayed and inspired by his work.

There was not much to set apart this little village, with a population of 3,500, until Dr Sitarama Rao, the Telugu language teacher at the Banigandlapadu Government Junior College - where Vishnu studies - came up with the idea of a VAAC. Now, everyone - from the barber to the toothless grandma - reels out statistics and has an anecdote or two to narrate about people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) known to them 'personally'.

"There is no worthwhile activity for students at the 10PLUS2 stage, so I wanted to tap the latent energy levels of the students at this stage. Everything in this concept is old, but the context in which it is being administered is new," says Rao. Rao started mobilising students when he was a programme officer with the National Service Scheme in the college. Environment, child labour, hygiene etc were the areas of focus until Rao started talking about HIV. The clubs are the culmination of four years of voluntary work by the undergraduate students of the college, and then as a voluntary group.

The VAACs were launched formally in February (2005) in the Errupalem Mandal (an administrative unit) of Khammam district. VAACs were started in nine villages in the mandal, and there are plans to start similar clubs in all 46 villages of the mandal. The Andhra Pradesh AIDS Control Society, impressed by the overwhelming response to the clubs, has offered funding to the clubs - an offer so far unutilised.

We have wall paintings in our village all along the bus route, so that every passenger inadvertently reads the message many times before he exits the village.
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The VAACs have devised a simple and effective method of functioning. In Banigandlapadu which is the only junior college in the entire mandal, every student is a member of the club. In the other villages, young people in the 16-30 age group join the club. These youth are organised into groups of four and sent across to various households, where they speak to villagers about HIV/AIDS and related issues. They also hold discussions in a central place in the village and try to rope in as many people as possible to attend these meetings. They discuss the consequences of HIV infection, how it can be prevented, the use of condoms, and stigma and discrimination. They quote statistics and discuss case studies. Whenever three or four students are on a bus or train, they begin a loud discussion on these issues, inevitably drawing those around them into it.

The clubs also occasionally organise events, like a walk or a rally, a condom distribution day or a children's competition. They use public forums and gatherings, like jatras and religious festivals, to spread the message. The clubs also hold cultural shows, skits and plays to spread the message. Recently, a four-day peer leader training programme was held for 80 young people from the villages in the mandal.

"Earlier, I was hardly known in my village. I left the college two years ago, but even now everyone there knows me," says Mallikarjun Reddy of Meenavolu village, a former student of the college, who is studying in Warangal town. Reddy still manages to attend the major programmes of the VAACs. Addressing women in rural areas has been a major problem, he says, suggesting that there is need to form a network of women functionaries in villages to speak to other women.

The rapport the young people share with the villagers is visible, but there are ground-level problems. "Our primary focus is academic excellence, and we may not be able to devote the time and energy that the issue deserves. Besides, there are several issues of caste, political affiliations, gender etc that we have to keep in mind, considering the delicate nature of the issue," says Chandrasekhar Azad, principal of the college and one of the guiding forces behind the movement.

According to the 2005 statistics of the National AIDS Control Organisation, Andhra Pradesh accounts for an estimated 10 per cent of all HIV cases in the country. Prakasam district tops the table with an alarming 4 per cent prevalence, while Khammam is yet a low prevalence district.

"That is precisely the idea. We want to nip the problem in the bud. And, god forbid, in case of an epidemic outbreak, there would be an army prepared to tackle it head-on," says Rao. "It was natural progression for our kids to get involved in the clubs' activities because we have been involved in various voluntary programmes down the years," he explains.

The concept works because of strong leadership and individual initiative at various levels. The innovative approach of this scheme blends seamlessly with the existing voluntary activities of the students. But where does the idea of VAACs move from here? "We have plans for the neighbouring villages too. We have already begun collecting Census details so that they can work out the best strategy to address each cluster," says Murali Marabatula, peer leader from Mamunuru, one of the villages in the mandal that has a VAAC.

"The message has to be constantly reinforced. We have wall paintings in our village all along the bus route, so that every passenger inadvertently reads the message many times before he exits the village," says Srinivasa Reddy, a teacher and an active member of the club.

The clubs have made an impact on government schemes as well. Vinayashree, community coordinator of the state government's Velugu Poverty Alleviation Project, says, "In rural areas, we are still focusing on income generation activities. In my area of operation, I have tried to blend in the VAAC message with the self-help group goals."

So far, the VAACs are only loosely institutionalised, self-funded and are fuelled by the enthusiasm of small groups, but Rao believes that a state-wide campaign is the logical progression for the initiative. (Women's Feature Service)