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Health secretary to look into complaints against anti-AIDS campaign

A new HIV/AIDS awareness campaign is accused of being sexist and creating misconceptions. The Maharashtra health secretary has been directed to look into the complaints

The People's Health Organisation (PHO) claims that the `Balbir Pasha' campaign funded by the trans-national NGO, Population Services International (PSI), and the Indian health ministry should be discontinued.

I S Gilada of the PHO said: “Instead of an awareness campaign, it has turned out to be a misinformation campaign, and against women.”

The high-profile campaign began about two months ago, with teasers appearing in newspapers, on billboards and television spots featuring a fictional Balbir Pasha. `Will Balbir Pasha contract AIDS?' the teaser asked. The reply was given on World AIDS Day, December 1. It said that Pasha would indeed get AIDS if he did not use a condom during sex. `Balbir Pasha may forget to wear condoms under the influence of liquor. Even once would get him AIDS' ran the advertisement.

The latest spot goes further. `Balbir Pasha has one regular -- Manjula. But Manjula has many regulars'. This refers to sex workers and their regular clientele.

“The campaign had generated some awareness, with people calling up hotlines to help those suffering from AIDS. But there were also queries from people confused by the publicity drive,” said Gilada.

According to the PHO, the danger of the campaign was that people might come to believe that AIDS is transmitted only from women to men, and that the disease is passed on only during sex.

Maharashtra health minister Digvijay Khanvilkar has directed health secretary Navin Kumar to look into the complaints. “I have received several complaints from citizens, NGOs and even legislators. In fact, the issue was raised in the legislative council during the recently-concluded winter session,” said Khanvilkar.

The health department will seek more information from PSI. The health secretary is expected to submit his report within a fortnight after going through the text, visuals and a film being prepared on the issue. Asked what action the government could take against a campaign aimed at public awareness, the minister said: “Let us (first) find out if has any objectionable parts.”

According to PSI, there is nothing objectionable about the Balbir Pasha advertisements. “I am amazed at such a reaction. Actually, we wanted the people to talk about AIDS and focus on the related issues. I think we have achieved this,” says Shilpa Merchant, project director of PSI.

“Technically, there is nothing wrong in it. What the ads say is that Pasha forgets to use a condom under the influence of alcohol and he also believes that a condom is not necessary if a particular commercial sex worker is his `regular',” Merchant says about the wordings of the campaign.

She agrees, however, that the campaign might have some limitations, as it cannot cover all aspects of the issue. “The basic idea is to make people talk about the problem and I think we have achieved that.”

Source: Hindustan Times, December 31, 2002
--The Indian Express, January 5, 2003