Peer educator Ansari conducting his outreach activities
Iranis, a small minority group of 800–1000 people are the branch of original Iranians who traveled to India during Mughal Period. Some of them stayed back in India forming small pockets in various states.This splinter group entered Kishanganj around early 1980s from Purnia. Most of them have bought land and now settled in Irani Basti. Kishanganj district is located in the north–eastern part of Bihar. It shares its borders with West–Bengal on one side and Nepal on the other. It is often described as the corridor between northeast and rest of the country. Most men in the Irani Basti, a predominantly Shia Muslim settlement, trade in glasses and gems, often spending months away from home. The women, on the other hand, are completely bound to their homes, while they do not observe Purdah, they are not allowed to even appear before the community elders. The community inhabiting the Irani Basti traces its roots back to Iran. Its 275–odd members have their own set of rules and traditions and look upon outsiders with suspicion. Their deepest allegiance is to their own head, the Sardar and a group of elders. In the light of the above, it is quite remarkable that Ejaj Ahmad Ansari, a peer educator, has been able to penetrate this closed community in rather a short span of time. Commonly known as Ansari Bhai, he has befriended several young men and has truly endeared himself to many of them. Due to his popularity among these young men, he has been able to introduce his outreach activities and five–day training sessions in the settlement, without much controversy.
I don't hesitate to distribute condoms. I often give it to my customers. I even explain to them about HIV-AIDS
During his outreach work, Ansari interacts with young men at locations, where they are comfortable, including their usual hangouts, such as paan shops and at the barber’s. In a conversational manner, he acquaints them with issues like gender, sex and sexuality and the ways in which these are correlated with HIV/AIDS. In addition, Ansari has thrown himself whole–heartedly into promoting the use of condoms in Kishanganj. And he has been pleasantly surprised by the response of some of the men he has worked with. One example is that of a paanwala, who started using condoms after Ansari told him that HIV could be the consequence of his habit of having unprotected sex with sex workers. Bablu, a paan shop owner, has gone one step further and tries to disseminate what he has learnt. Appreciating the importance of the information Ansari gave him, he decided that he wanted to do his bit and started distributing free condoms in his shop. Young men often take condoms from him. On his role in spreading CHARCA’s message, Bablu says, “My friend, Ansari, comes and sits in my shop after ten in the morning. One day, he told me about CHARCA and what it does. I don’t hesitate to distribute condoms and often give them to my customers. I have even tried to explain the dangers of HIV/AIDS to some of my friends who visit sex workers after getting drunk”.
Amrar Kumar Thakur owns a barber shop. He uses fresh blades on different customers and influences other barbers to do the same
Mohd. Ghulam Asdani, the owner of Huma Chemist Shop in Thakurganj, claims that the sale of condoms has increased since CHARCA began its outreach activities in Kishanganj. He says, “No one used to buy condoms earlier”. This shows that peer educators like Ansari are, indeed, making a difference in Kishanganj. Coming back to Ansari’s work in Irani Basti, his interaction with Asgar Ali has been one of his most rewarding experiences. Asgar was among the young boys who had attended one of the first few training sessions conducted by Ansari. Today, he not only helps Ansari organize activities and meetings within the basti, but also wants to train to become a peer educator himself. Another heartening example is that of Amrar Kumar Thakur, who owns a barbershop in Chori Patti, Nayi jaat. A member of the community group formed by Ansari, he has been quick to apply his newly acquired knowledge to his own profession. He makes sure not to use the same blade on different customers and advises others too, to refrain from doing so. “A meeting of barbers is held on the last Saturday of every month”, he says. “During these meetings, I tell my colleagues about HIV/AIDS and warn them that if they use the same blade on different people, they might be spreading HIV/AIDS”. Now Amrar is influencing other barbers to do the same.
I firmly believe that When we sensitize the men, it has an impact on the women as well
Ansari is convinced that his painstaking efforts will see steady progress. He can afford to feel assured of this, because each of his small victories seems to have offshoots that multiply gradually. He echoes this sentiment when asked about what is being done to address the plight of the women in Irani Basti – sensitizing the men would have a trickle–down effect on the women. And it is true that since this is just the beginning, it would be counterproductive to attempt too many things together.