Tuesday, 17 February, 2009

The Project 19 Festival: What It Meant to Us

When we first sat down and thought about doing a festival, it was at a time in The YP Foundation when we had just finished a 2 year project called Project 19. Project 19 was a youth led programme that had trained 40 young people on Understanding Sexual Reproductive Rights and Health and HIV/AIDS and we had just finished conducting 9 workshops with 500 young people across Delhi.

The aim at the time had been simple. We had learnt throughout our workshops that increasingly, it was getting harder to talk about sexuality or any kind of right associated with it. That although young people living in urban communities have access to a great deal of resources, their ability to make informed decisions was sorely lacking. And that although a great deal of work was happening across the country on these issues, young people weren’t part of that dialogue. They were not talking with other at risk communities, they were not dialoguing with government, they were not advocating with their families and their education systems and most of them had never interacted with any kind of community.

We realized that we were part of a space that makes issues of sexuality, rights, health and HIV/AIDS problematic, because in not addressing these issues publicly, we force them to become silent. And as this silence grows, it increasingly stops recognizing people and their ability to express themselves as individuals.

The greatest learning perhaps in putting this festival together has actually been the questions that have been raised by 50 young people working together, who have challenged how such issues impact a range of people, who were not there in our workshops, who we don’t meet in our daily lives and often, whose needs are never considered when we advocate for our right to sexuality.

Being someone who has run a young people’s organization for the last 7 years, I always found it interesting, that if you wanted to talk about sexuality, you were asked instead, to talk about reproductive health. That if you wanted to talk about HIV/AIDS, you were asked to talk about abstinence and prevention, instead of being able to talk about rights, treatment and care. And it’s made all of us question,

Why is sexuality so problematic?

Why as society, are we so scared to address any kind of sexuality education or rights cohesively? What stops us from giving people complete rather than half baked information that is critical and live saving and that can protect them from disease, empowers them to be informed individuals and that teach them to be respectful to their own needs and desires and to be respectful towards the rights of others as well?

That’s where The YP Foundation’s journey with Project 19 started. It got challenged further, when we met the Center for Human Progress and a casual conversation with Dr. Ash Pachauri led us to further explore, why this was originally, only a youth led festival. These are not issues that belong only to young people, and isn’t half the problem that young people work in silos? Where they don’t dialogue with any kind of diversity and as a result of the same, don’t acknowledge diversities either.
But it’s quite one thing to say you’d like to do a national level knowledge exchange and quite another, for a group of young people who have very limited experience with these issues, to be able to pull it off. We don’t speak multiple languages, we have never worked as an organization outside of Delhi, we got countless questions from donors on how we were going to handle over 400 voices in two days and each time we realized we didn’t have the expertise to do this, we thought, are we really the right people to organize this?

And to my mind, that’s exactly why we are doing this. Because young people don’t ideally have the set of tools that helps them understand how to create integrated spaces and that until and unless we bring people together and teach ourselves those tools, as a collective society, we will never know how to work with different communities. It will always be an expert’s space and therefore, people will get always excluded in larger public dialogue. We believe that if you give people their right to information, skills and services, and that if you trust rather than judge who you think they are, we can negotiate high-risk situations more effectively and reduce our vulnerability to violence, HIV and substance abuse.

Now more than ever, our government needs to endorse to its people, that affirming education, information and services is about recognizing and respecting people’s basic human rights. This information, whether it be on our freedom to access Sexuality Education, the decriminalization of law, our access to reproductive health or sexual health services or respecting our right to pleasure, is a basic part of giving people their dignity, equality, justice and freedom. And that is not UN Indian, not against our culture or moral values and that it is inexcusable, to not provide this security to people simply because it is sometimes easier, to not do so.

In a culture where we place so much misguided emphasis on labels, on gender expression, on patriarchy, on expecting people to be able to negotiate and express their own identities but refusing to give them to tools to do so, we hope you will use Project 19 as your space to speak out.

We’re extremely grateful to Ash and the Center for Human Progress for having the patience to build this vision together with us and being willing to take it forward, to Doctor Sujatha Rao from NACO for taking a chance on a group of young people with an idea, to the entire crew at the India Habitat Centre who we have driven crazy in the last month, to

• National AIDS Control Organization (NACO)
• United Nations Development Program (UNDP)
• The David and Lucile Packard Foundation
• United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF)
• Hindustan Latex Family Planning Promotion Trust (HLFPPT)
• Family Planning Association of India (FPAI)
• International Planned Parenthood Federation – South Asia Regional Office
• Ford Foundation
• Population Foundation of India (PFI)
• India HIV/AIDS Alliance
• Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS)
• Tehelka
• The International Women’s Health Coalition, TARSHI, CREA and Pramada Menon, for always giving us direction
• The Raghu Dixit Project for always sharing their music with us.
• Indian Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS (INP+)
• All of our families and our staff at TYPF,

And Moser Baer for endorsing this space and giving us all creative freedom and trusting, that we can take this forward in an inclusive and collaborative spirit.

Who is this festival for? Is a question that a concerned person asked me. And it’s a very good question. With all of its limitations and all of its room to grow, in learning to answer that question, has perhaps come one of my most important realizations. What is a community? And who belongs to it? And who defines it? Project 19 – The Festival is about people. It is not only about any one community, about any one set of rights, or any one celebrity and it has been not been organized to highlight or dissect marginalized, at risk or youth groups and label them so.

It is the recognition of a space in which we are ALL part of a shared community and that is high time, we begin a dialogue within in. Respecting that there are differences, respecting that diversities are not always easily negotiated and that we all don’t speak the same language.

For us in The YP, so many people being here, who identify themselves within so much diversity, is incredible. We are so many people in this festival – truck drivers, youth from across the country, sex workers, transgender people, injecting drug users, men who have sex with men, community based organizations, people living with HIV+ –it is the individual here, who counts. Your being here with us, makes this is a moment in our history to remember. To say that as people, we will not, not recognize the rights and needs of each other simply because we don’t know each other well enough. That as society, we do not want to attach the kind of guilt, fear, violence and shame that gets associated with many of us when we talk about Sexuality or Rights or Health or HIV/AIDS.

We have had too many years of awkward silences and far too many generations of people who have grown up not being given the opportunity to speak out about their thoughts, fears, expressions and questions. For me, helping put this festival together is the beginning of one of the most extraordinary learning experiences of my life, of how people can come together and how we all need to make the effort to connect despite our diversity.

Thank you for joining us, for creating in this space and attempting to make it your own. We hope you can use The Project 19 Festival every year, to advocate, challenge, connect and speak out, on how and why these issues mean the most to you.

Ishita Chaudhry
Managing Trustee & CEO
The YP Foundation

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