The phone rings almost constantly in this small, two-room flat hidden among the rows of shops and houses in a noisy street of Bhawani Peth. “Am I at risk,” is an oft-repeated question heard from the other side of the line. On this side, seven nameless and faceless counsellors answer in soft, measured tones, drawing out reasons for their callers’ fears and giving careful and precise advice.
The Samvad helpline for HIV/AIDS, an initiative of the Pune-based Muktaa Charitable Foundation (MCF), has reached out to more than 1,50,000 callers till January 2013 and the numbers are growing steadily. “We get between 90-100 calls every day. Questions range from what HIV means to whether an infected person can marry to how they can deal with social stigma. The counsellors are trained to address each issue truthfully, yet tactfully,” says Praful Madhave, who is project manager at MCF, which was started in 2005.
The counsellors at Samvad believe their advantage lies in the anonymity of both the caller and the counsellor. “While interacting face to face, people hesitate and try to hide information. However, on the phone they are willing to bare the truths and openly clear their doubts since there is no name or face to the voice they hear. From the counsellor’s side too, this ensures a non-judgmental attitude. We never ask for names or addresses,” says Ramachandra Waghmare, MCF’s promotion manager.
The job, however, is much more difficult because the window of interaction is entirely dependent on the caller. “There is only so much time we have on hand. One wrong answer can ruin a life so we have to be very careful,” says one counsellor. Another counsellor admits that “it can get frustrating when we know the caller is in a desperate situation and needs physical help.”
Waghmare says the helpline get calls from a wide cross-section of people. “Majority of the calls are from people not yet infected by HIV. We are happy to warn and guide them towards a healthy life but really want to reach those already infected, especially women,” he says. That’s how MCF’s AASHA project took shape at Sasoon Hospital’s ART (anti retroviral treatment) centre. Under the project, a MUKTAA worker connects patients to the helpline for free so they can know how to live positively. Started in August 2011, this project has become an easy platform for women to discuss their fears. Now the project has spread to Akola and Nagpur districts too and aims at reaching all ART centres across Maharashtra.
In its single-minded effort to curb the spread of HIV and support infected people, MCF has also initiated an Ankur project to disclose their HIV status to children, Sampark, a free mobile service for rural areas, call back service and SMS reminder service for ART refill.
Discussing their future plans Madhave says, “We have a similar HIV helpline in Bihar also but we want to spread out to all the Hindi-speaking states in the next five years.”
- Joyce William John