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Empowering communities of men who have sex with men to prevent HIV


Painting displayed at community activities sponsored by Humsafar (c) Humsafar Trust

In 1990 three men in Mumbai, India, wondered aloud to each other, “What will happen to us in old age? Who will take care of us?” As Indians, each felt a strong sense of responsibility to his own family and each expected to care for his parents as they aged.

But these men also knew that they were unlikely to have children of their own or build a family in the traditional sense. As part of the emerging gay rights movement in India, they recognised a need to develop an alternative support system rather than accept the limitations of a marginalised and criminalised existence. With this aspiration in mind the men founded the Humsafar Trust, meaning in Hindi, ‘companions on a journey’.

The organisation created a safe haven and provided support for Mumbai’s emerging community of men who have sex with men (MSM) and transgender people, too often the victims of family rejection, social discrimination and violence.

Humsafar quickly recognised that it needed to take up the challenge of HIV. In many parts of the world HIV programming for MSM is inadequate or nonexistent. In some places, fledgling rights movements for sexual minorities provide a vital and often the only platform for MSM to respond to their vulnerability to HIV in the absence of governmental or other support.

MSM are on average nine times more vulnerable to infection than the general population. The urgency of the situation prompted the National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO) to make MSM and transgender people along with sex workers and injecting drug users a priority in India’s third national AIDS strategy.

Humsafar provides services to MSM and transgenders in an environment sometimes hostile to these vulnerable populations. The organisation currently reaches 12,000 clients annually with HIV and health services at three clinics and a drop-in centre. Outreach workers provide advice and promote condoms in cruising sites such as public toilets, parks, cinemas, beaches and truck stops. Street outreach in Mumbai is not easy. Although outreach workers carry identification cards they are frequently harassed by the police.

The Humsafar Trust offers a model that is distinctly responsive to the Indian context but is nonetheless instructive for programmers in other places. A number of useful lessons have emerged from their years of experience:

  • Leverage MSM community knowledge and involvement. Community members can be indispensable partners in developing HIV programming.
  • Undertake formative research. It can be useful to motivate action and change opinion.
  • Increase resource investment in MSM HIV programming
  • Develop service options that reflect MSM community diversity
  • Collaborate with government health systems to train clinical staff to treat MSM and other sexual minorities without bias and to address their needs.
  • Integrate and link services whenever possible to enable a broad ‘menu’ of HIV services.
  • Balance necessary advocacy with service provision

In September 2010, the Humsafar Trust joined the Alliance as a Linking Organisation. In October 2010, a new project funded through Global Fund Round 9 was launched in India to strengthen and build the capacity of community-based organisations to provide HIV prevention programming for 435,000 MSM, transgenders and hijras in 17 states. Named ‘Pehchan,’  the new project is being implemented by the India HIV/AIDS Alliance in partnership with Humsafar, the Maan Foundation, SAATHII, Sangama, and SIAAP.

 (The above text was adapted from a 2010 case study on Humsafar developed by USAID’s AIDSTAR-One project. You can read the complete case study here and find more details about AIDSTAR-One at their website: www.aidstar-one.com.)

Source: AIDSTAR-One