CHANGE leaders do great things, and often that is all we know about them. Here we want to get a different glimpse of the personalities that constitute the development space. Every month we get one leader to answer four questions, not necessarily about their work, but about themselves. This week we catch up with Sanghamitra Iyengar, Managing Trustee of Samraksha.

In the early 90s when Sanghamitra was working as a mental health practitioner, she witnessed the emotional challenges that HIV-positive patients face and the lack of support that makes it more difficult for them. To add to this, the deep-rooted stigma around HIV/AIDS often marks the journey with loneliness. Sanghamitra started Samraksha to address this, especially in rural India where health facilities are poor and social taboos are harsh.

Today Samraksha works with some of the most vulnerable in villages across Karnataka to strengthen the ability of people affected by HIV to live with dignity and respect, free of pain.

Small Change: Why does this cause matter to you? 

Sanghamitra Iyengar: In 1992-93 when I was working at NIMHANS and I saw that people who test HIV-positive had a big red mark on their file and everybody was worried about who this person was going to go out and infect. What no one was thinking about was what will happen when this person gets the diagnosis of a terminal illness which is so deeply stigmatised in the society we live in.

Most of the time, there is secrecy around HIV/AIDS and often people affected have no one to talk to once they get the diagnosis which is very unfair. I wanted to change that and provide them support – and that’s how Samraksha came about.

SC: What can one do to destigmatise HIV/AIDS?

SI:  What really bothers most people when they come across HIV/AIDS affected people is the sexuality part of it which is a deep-rooted stigma. Even though the perception has changed to an extent over the years, what has remained is the judgment and the stereotypes. So, it’s important to treat HIV/AIDS as any other illness. To keep an open mind and not treat the people affected any differently.

SC:  What’s your least and most favourite thing about humanity?

SI: My least favourite thing is the ‘us and them’ attitude, creating divides where there is none. There is a place for everyone and we can all live in harmony.

My most favourite thing is the surprising kindness and generosity people display even when they have nothing.

SC: You have been forced to eat only four things for the rest of your life. Which four items would you choose?

SI: Ah! That’s a tough one. We are all so health conscious these days. I think I would choose nuts, fruits, tea, and of course, biscuits to go with the tea!

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