My work has come to an end….. I can't quite believe that as I write this my 5 months of working with AVI projects is drawing to a close. Its been a busy two weeks since Martha and I parted in Kovalam. I was in Chennai for a week working on the website of an organisation called ASSEFA, then I visited two NGO's based just outside of Madurai in a district called Theni and this week I have been back in Trivandrum (Kerala) with an organic farming project called KGSN. My week in Chennai felt a bit like I was back working in London. I don't want to rub it in to those of you that are reading this perched behind your desks but after gallivanting around India for 5 months I'm just not used to working 9-5pm in an office any more! I consumed a lot of Chai and rediscovered the joys of Facebook J After Chennai my Visit to Theni was really quite eye-opening. It was a brief stay of just two days to visit two organisations called the DAC Trust and Arogya Agam. I had heard about the work of the organisations whilst with another AVI partner called Crusade. Crusade, DAC Trust and Arogya Agam are all involved in a panchayat raj network that is aiming to develop 'model' panchayats throughout Tamil Nadu. Panchayats are like the village councils in India but they actually have a fair amount of power and can access a lot of funding and support from the government. The trouble is they are often breeding grounds for corruption and discrimination and don't function efficiently. The panchayat raj network in Tamil Nadu (made up of several NGOs) is trying to influence a few key panchayats to work as democratically and effectively as they can. My visit was to see some of this work with panchayats as well as some other areas of work but I think DAC Trust went for maximum impact when they put together my itinerary - on Sunday I took part in a HIV Positive group meeting, went to meet a group of transgender people and then went to talk to some sex workers. It was quite a morning! In every day Indian life there are a number of things that protect an image of chastity; women are careful to cover their bodies, there is no sex before marriage, girls and boys don't usually socialise together, even when you are married public displays of affection aren't condoned. The irony of this is that under this pure surface all the 'problems' associated with the west - promiscuity, prostitution, drug abuse, alcoholism - are still there, they are just not admitted. Repressed and forced down under the pressures of a violently rigid society problems are not discussed or solved so they escalate. Up until this point in my visit to India all these 'issues' had never really come to the surface, I had heard a few mumblings about alcoholism and sex work but otherwise it was all kept pretty well hidden. In Theni it was refreshing that all the 'taboo' subjects were being tackled openly and head on. The groups I met with were people that, for one reason or another, had become entangled in something that was seen as 'wrong' by society. The men and women that were HIV positive had been ostracised by their communities, the transgender group had all been disowned by their families for being gay and the prostitutes were all just normal housewives forced into sex work because they were desperate for a better standard of living for their families. It was a really sad situation to see. Thankfully the support groups that all these men and women belong to are working for their empowerment and towards increasing awareness about these 'taboo' subjects in society and I did meet with one HIV positive lady (I've included her story below) who had been voted by her community to become a member of her panchayat, so there is hope yet! But unfortunately I think Indian society has a long way to go before it quashes the prevalant misunderstandings and discrimination. So from prostitutes and transsexuals to organic farming. This week I have been back in Trivandrum visiting KGSN. KGSN work with small scale farmers in the Trivandrum district to form farming societies and promote organic and balanced farming. So I have spent a lot of this week looking at vegetables in grow bags and assessing manure quality. Call me Alan Titchmarsh J I did have a day's break from my green-fingered work when I decided to get a bus down to see the tip of India, Cape Comorin or Kanyakumari where the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea all meet together. There is not a lot to see in Kanyakumari (especially when the two museums are closed from 12-4pm each day and the temple is not open to non-Hindu visitors) but there is an impressive monument of Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar that stands on a small island just off the coast. This is the iconic image associated with the 'tip' of India. It is debatable whether the place was worth the 6 hour bus journey in the 35degree heat but at least I can say I've been to the bottom of India! So that kind of brings me to the end of my ramblings. This afternoon I am 'guest of honour' at an organic farming competition (I am sure some comedy photos will emerge!) then I shall wave good bye to my laptop and tomorrow I shall set off to go and meditate in the hills……yep I'm off to "find myself"! Interview with the HIV +ve panchayat member in Theni M Easwari is HIV positive, she contracted the virus unwittingly from her husband Mariappam. Mariappam is a tailor by trade, he says he got HIV from a young girl he had hired to do some stitching work at his and M Easwari's home. During one of the girl's visits they had sexual relations. Mariappam says he didn't realise at that time that the young girl was also involved in sex work; this is how he believes he contracted the virus. Mariappam didn't find out he was HIV positive until the year 2000 when he got a bad fever that wouldn't subside. Tests confirmed HIV but he chose not to reveal this to M Easwari. M Easwari didn't find out her husband was HIV positive until 2 years later during her pregnancy when tests confirmed that she was also HIV positive. The couple's son Santos is also HIV positive. Back in the UK this would be a shocking situation but unfortunately in the Theni district of Tamil Nadu this is not an unusual situation. The district has the second highest incidence of HIV in Tamil Nadu state and Tamil Nadu has the highest recorded incidence rate of HIV in India. Even though HIV is relatively common in Theni awareness and understanding of the virus is poor. Sufferers are often ostracised by their communities and made to feel inferior and unclean, because of this many positive people hide their condition from the outside world. What is unusual about M Easwari and Mariappam is how they have dealt with their condition, instead of hiding away and denying they are HIV positive they have been open with their community and family and got involved with work to raise awareness of HIV and AIDS. Back in 2006 Mariappam decided he wanted to stand in his local panchayat elections to be a ward member. The community knew Mariappam was HIV positive and his campaign was called to a stop by other candidates because of the virus. This didn't deter Mariappam or M Easwari. Through her involvement in a local SHG M Easwari had already attended some panchayat raj training sessions. She was aware of the role of ward member, what it involved and why it was important. She had also learnt about the role of women in the panchayat system and when Mariappam's nomination was contested she decided she would like to stand in his place. She felt that it was their right, whether they were HIV positive or not, to have a voice in their community. M Easwari started her campaign for the elections and 8 other positive people in her ward helped her to canvas for votes. During her campaign M Easwari openly admitted she was HIV positive and said that that shouldn't affect her position in the community, all she wanted to do was help the people. Gradually she rallied massive support in the community and this made her more confident and determined to win. During the 2006 elections there were 10 HIV positive people standing in different districts, M Easwari was the only one that won her seat. She is the first HIV positive ward member in Tamil Nadu state. Her win was not only a step forward for the rights and confidence of HIV Positive people it was also a symbolic win because she is a women; M Easwari was standing against 5 men for her seat all of whom had a political background but she got more votes than them all of them put together. Since being voted in M Easwari has achieved a lot. She has succeeded in identifying the poorest people in her community and has linked them to government benefits and has got houses built for some lower caste people. As well as this she has become much more involved in raising awareness of HIV and AIDS within the local area. She has spoken about the issue in the Gram Sabha (village meeting) and conducts training for SHG members. Together M Easwari and Mariappam have become quite a team, everyone in their local community knows them and knows they are HIV positive. Together they have raised awareness and diminished the discrimination towards positive people in their area. They have made it their mission to help their community and open their doors day or night to anyone who has any worries or questions about HIV. They even hand out free condoms from their home. In addition to the role of ward member M Easwari has also been elected as the President of the Theni district Women's Forum and as a board member for the Indian Network of Positive People. Even will all this on her plate her enthusiasm for her work in the panchayat is still going strong, she has a long list of improvements she wants to get for her ward including a public toilet, safe drinking water and a bus stand. She also says that, providing there is no reservation quota in the next panchayat elections in 2010,she would like to stand for president!