Brahmcharya – Guyanese Hindus fight HIV/AIDS with abstinence messages World AIDS Day 2006
By Neil Marks
Guyana Chronicle
November 27, 2006

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VINDHYA and Keeran Persaud share more than a similar surname. They are both Hindus and their mission is the same – stopping the spread of HIV/AIDS. Their method does not vary either and the challenges they face are the same.

Vindhya receives funding from the Government of Guyana/World Bank HIV/AIDS Guyana HIV/AIDS Prevention and Control Project (GAPCP) to carry out her activities in mandirs across the country. The project which she manages falls under the Guyana Hindu Dharmic Sabha, but she says it is mainly supported by the organisation’s youth arm, Naujawaan.

Keeran is attached to the Society for Empowerment and Holistic Advancement, called SEWA. His organisation has received funding from the United States Ambassador Fund which provides support from small-scale community projects in the fight against the disease.

DIFFICULT TASK Vindhya and Keeran have the same reason for introducing HIV/AIDS prevention messages in mandirs, as a Hindu place of worship is called. The majority of Hindus are East Indians, who make up just about half of the total Guyanese population.

HIV/AIDS is a taboo subject in Indian households and the myths about the spread of the disease abound. They agree that the topic of sex is almost a definite “no” in Indian families. Nowadays, the influence of the Western world presents another challenge, Vindhya says.

Provocative dance cultures and immoral modes of dress have helped to advance promiscuous behaviour among the youth folk, she posits.

The myths surrounding how HIV/AIDS is spread presents a challenge when the disease is a topic for discussion in the temples, under the watchful eyes of the numerous idols representing deities.

Keeran says the people, both young and old, male and female, whom SEWA has engaged at workshop sessions after temple services, all knew how HIV/AIDS “is” spread, but they didn’t know how it “is not” spread.

“They didn’t know that you can’t get AIDS by shaking hands, using the same toilet seat, using the same bathroom, or using the same kitchen utensils used by an HIV/AIDS positive person,” he says.

“They believe HIV/AIDS is not an Indian or a Hindu problem. They believe it’s only if you are a ‘bad’ person, only so you could get the disease,” Vindhya adds.

She says it’s still a problem to preach HIV/AIDS messages in the temples. The older generation is opposed she said, having the opinion that this seemingly immoral disease violates the sacred grounds of the Mandir.

“It’s this mind-set that we have to break,” Vindhya stresses. The Dharmic Sabha was sought out by funding agencies such as GAPCP and the Ministry of Health, because of its community roots. Some 120 mandirs are associated with the Sabha. The organisation has an open clinic at its Better Hope, East Coast Demerara Mandir, where Vindya wants to offer voluntary counselling and testing sometime in the future.

She says the younger generation is eager to learn and get involved in the fight. The Sabha has chosen to use the Indian movie craze to get the word out. And so movies on HIV/AIDS, such as “My Brother Nikhil” starring the popular Juhi Chawla is shown on select movie nights.

In an innovative programme, 25 pandits trained by the Sabha had incorporated in their programme the topic of HIV/AIDS and its spread. Vindya says this made it easy to carry the message into the mandirs, since everyone respects the pandit.

However, she says hardly anyone would come to the mandir for a session on HIV/AIDS, so the pandits incorporate it in their sermons.

SEWA has chosen to conduct its sessions after the formal programme of worship.

SEWA undertakes its programme using the logo “Bramcharya – a Wall of Protection.” Keeran says it's appropriate since his organisation does not encourage condom use, but is strict on the message of abstinence, or sex only within marriage.

“Bramcharya is the Hindu way of life, representing a commitment to God,” he points out.

He admits it’s a tough message to take to youths who are bombarded with sex messages and safe sex messages. “Safe sex messages encourage promiscuous behaviour. In other words, they say ‘go ahead, have sex, but just be careful.’ We teach abstinence” he adds.

Keeran says the abstinence message would be easy to get across if Hindus understood the concept of Brahmcharya and so then their energies would be diverted from “indulging in those things (sexual behaviours).”

Vindya also promotes abstinence. She also preaches fidelity among those who are married. Unlike Keeran though, she says the Sabdha does not negate the use of condoms, but it is not promoted.

She sees effective communication between parents and children as one of the ways to help bring back values into society. She says if parents start at an early age, they could impart values common to Hindus to their children.

(This is the second in a series being published to coincide with this year’s observance of World AIDS Day. In tomorrow’s issue, we look at the programme to prevent pregnant women from transmitting the HIV virus to their unborn babies.)