In late 2007, a group of advocates for men who have sex with men (MSM) and transgenders in India were concerned that efforts to strengthen community systems for vulnerable sexual minorities were not getting the attention or funding needed.
The group organized around a basic but compelling principle: "MSM and transgender communities in India must act as equal partners in the national HIV response and work collectively to increase funding and expand programming for these populations."
Ashok and Vivek were from Humsafar Trust, India's first and perhaps best known organization for MSM, based out of Mumbai. Ashok is a treasure, the first gay man to come out publicly in India, who has seen the country move from being "gay-blind" to finding the vision to decriminalize homosexuality in 2009. Pawan was from the organization SAATHII; he is a respected MSM community leader who has earned the respect of India's national AIDS control program and in West Bengal, his home state. Aditya and Lok were from Adhikaar, a rights advocacy organization that successfully fought a legal battle after the arrest in 2001 of HIV prevention outreach workers in Lucknow who carried condoms and were charged with "promoting" homosexuality.
Over the next two years, this core group, together with other key leaders working with sexual minorities in India, went on to become the driving force behind the successful Global Fund proposal which has become the Fund's largest single-country grant to date focused on the HIV response for vulnerable sexual minorities.
Named after a Hindi word that means "identity" or "acknowledgement," Pehchan is a five-year program initiated in 2010 to support 200 community-based organizations in 17 Indian states to reach more than 450,000 MSM, transgenders and hijras with expanded services to prevent HIV, protect rights and improve health and wellbeing. Working closely with India's National AIDS Control Organization, the program leverages and strengthens the ability of these vulnerable communities to own their response to HIV.
At Pehchan's heart are community systems strengthening and community mobilization, approaches that are broadly understood as essential interventions for these at-risk populations. Sadly, too few programs or donors -- in India or elsewhere -- have attempted to engage these populations on the same geographic scale as Pehchān. As a multilateral donor, the Global Fund is particularly well-suited to take on work with marginalized populations, though getting in-country government support remains a great challenge in many places. This collaboration between civil society, donor and the government in India has helped Pehchan thrive.
The community leaders who had the audacity to imagine Pehchan five years ago remain committed to the program, some as members of the vibrant implementing consortium and others who continue the ongoing work of advocacy for these populations in India and across the world. While some may have doubted that a community once criminalized by this country could become a key partner in the government's strategy to prevent HIV here, for the group who planted the seeds that have grown into Pehchan, there was never any doubt. While much work remains, as Vivek recently said, "Pehchan is a dream come true for many of us. The journey started with just eight or nine people, and today has become a movement. Who knew we would come so far, so well!"