Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Book review: AIDS Sutra

I just finished reading a collection of short articles about the occurrence of AIDS in India. The book is called "AIDS Sutra, Untold Stories from India". The contributors are well-known authors and journalists, and each writes about the disease from one perspective of their choice. The articles are meant to give the reader a better understanding of the scope of the problem, some insight into the root causes, and perhaps some clues about the solution.

The book gives strong reasons why the AIDS epidemic in India is largely a cultural problem. Most women contract the virus through their spouses, who kept their status a secret. Women cannot ensure that their fiancé is not HIV positive. In the traditional Indian arranged marriage, a woman has no rights, and the relationship between husband and wife is asymmetric. Men, on the other hand, contract it most through paid, unprotected sexual encounters, when they are unaware of the risk.

There are a few articles that talk about gay men, and the intense societal pressures they face. The gender inequality hurts these people the most: their families often disown them, and there is no understanding of the harm caused by the rejection. Indian society isn't prepared to give any measure of equality to gays and lesbians: we ignore their presence, sweep them under the carpet and the problems fester.

Illiteracy shows up often into the stories. Women who didn't know about HIV till their husbands infected them. Women and men who didn't know about birth control. Women who weren't educated, and were thus incapable of living independently and thus fell to prostitution when times got bad. Women who weren't educated and were hustled into prostitution.

Law enforcement is often mentioned: all in negative light. The police extract protection money, rough up people who are too destitute to protect themselves, and enforce laws of their choosing.

Sex and HIV is a taboo topic. Most of my friends feel uncomfortable discussing it, even around friends. I don't blame them: I'd feel uncomfortable discussing it with many of them. That's part of the problem. We create more babies than any other country but are embarrassed and scared to speak about the process. Parents can't instil any meaningful values about sex if they are ashamed to hear the words mentioned. Parents hope that ignorance will keep children safe. In practice, children get conflicting, incorrect information from their friends, and engage in rash behaviour because they didn't know any better.

I'm sure I lost half my audience due to the title. To the rest of you, go read the book, it will open your eyes.