Touching Human Lives
Iris C F Gomes
When you first meet him, Peter Borges comes across as an unassuming, shy person, but the challenging work he has taken up reveals a completely different side to his character. The CEO and founder of Human Touch, an NGO that labours to aid HIV+ people and spreads awareness about sexual and reproductive health, and substance abuse, started out wanting to become a priest. His desire to work with sex workers was deemed risky, in addition to the fact that he was not completely happy at the seminary, so he decided to leave .
Armed with a post graduate degree from Nagpur University, Peter began his social work in rural Nagpur. He says, ‘I wanted to work with the youth, and the youth addressing youth issues is highly beneficial. The programmes are more effective. The premise of Human Touch is basically the youth working for the youth.’
Peter found that teenage pregnancies were high in rural Maharashtra and began to spread awareness about sexual and reproductive health. In 2008, incidences of HIV+ cases among teenagers were on the increase and sex education, which was sorely needed, was banned in eleven states despite a curriculum being designed for the same. At that time, Peter and his group helped promote sex education using the medium of entertainment to convey an important message to curb the spread of AIDS.
In the beginning, Peter and his associates worked without a formal organisational set up. In 2009, the group received MTV Staying Alive Foundation’s Staying Alive Award for Extraordinary HIV Prevention Work among Young People. The award gave them a start-up fund of 50,000 US dollars, which motivated them to register Human Touch officially as a non-profit organisation.
‘Over the years our focus has been sexual and reproductive health and HIV, which includes prevention as well as care and support. We did a lot of work in those areas and so our work was recognised by the UN and I was invited to be a part of many committees. This gave me a chance to travel widely and work in settings like Kenya, Zambia, Mali, South East Asia, Indonesia and Bangkok,’ says Peter, who has consolidated this experience to structure the programmes of Human Touch, while in turn making his own contribution as a country representative at the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) Summit.
After ten years of working outside Goa, in 2011 Peter decided to come back to his home state because he felt he had spent too much time apart from his family, and for a short period of time he worked with Goa State Aids Control Society. He taught the masters course in social work at Don Bosco College as the assistant professor for a year.
The move back to Goa, however, brought in a new problem for Peter: the problem of financial security for the NGO based in Nagpur. The issue needed to be tackled promptly to ensure the continuance of the good efforts of Human Touch. This led to the shutting down of operations at Nagpur and the entire organisation was relocated to Goa in 2013. He says, ‘We are working on similar issues. Our special focus is HIV+ adolescents and children. That is one area where we think we have a lot of expertise.’
Peter recalls the Rivona incident, where children from Nitya Seva Niketan were expelled from school following protests from parents because of their HIV+ status. The callous attitude of the people involved invited scathing guest articles in newspapers from him, lambasting them.
Earlier the life expectancy of HIV+ children was 8-9 years, and only if they were from a more affluent background. Free ART (Antiretroviral Therapy) drugs have made a phenomenal change in the survival rate of that demographic. The virus can be subdued to an extent that will allow patients to live relatively normal lives with younger people attending higher secondary school and university. ‘But the mentality of the people has not changed,’ he says regretfully. ‘Apart from the stigma, there are not many who are equipped to understand the mind of an adolescent with HIV. Many of them fall in love and get into relationships. Then there is the danger of them getting into negative or casual relationships and infecting the other person concerned. That is the fine part that we try to address,’ he continues.
The organisation focuses on disclosure, sexual and reproductive health and relationships. There is also a continued programme encompassing counselling and home visits, and there are two residential, five day camps held in a year. The next summer camp will be held in May, 2015.
Another concern of Human Touch is substance abuse in Goa. Peter works with much passion to help young people ensnared by this vicious addiction. There are children as young as 11 and 12 who are injecting themselves with drugs. This is a virulent problem along the coastal belt and has made inroads into Goan villages. ‘Around Sancoale, Goa-Velha and Cortalim I know at least 35 plus drug addicts who are very young. This is an area of great concern to us. Over the years the government has not addressed the problem,’ says Peter. The stronghold of the drug trade and sex work remains because of the tourism industry. It is the fate of the young people that he fears for. They usually begin with milder drugs and as they build up resistance they begin injecting themselves. Peter says, ‘When they begin doing that it becomes very difficult to bring them back.’ It is best to catch them when they are in the initial stage by providing counselling.
The limited resources at present are a bit of a stumbling block. The organisation cannot afford paid staff and is functioning with the help of volunteers. There is hope that help will be forthcoming from various agencies to support this good work.
Lack of finances has not stopped Peter from going ahead with his work and he has already submitted a proposal to train all government appointed counsellors in schools in the next academic year to be able to handle substance abuse cases. The primary reason is that the help that Human Touch extends to young people needs to be sustained and the volunteers cannot be at hand all the time. The closest and easiest assistance available is through school counsellors.
Another area of concentration is the livelihood programme. This targets sex workers, drug users and the LGBT community. In the case of transgender persons and homosexuals, who have been involved in sex work for years together, breaking free from the tangled web becomes a difficult task. Effeminate characteristics, even if they are educated, go against them when it comes to acquiring employment. This in turn relegates them to a life of begging or prostitution, which are not especially lucrative occupations. Some of them resort to making compromises in sex work for more money by not using a condom. This jeopardises all the efforts of the NGO towards the prevention of AIDS. Sex workers face a similar dilemma after years of prostitution and possessing no skills.
Human Touch provides them with training that will allow them to have a livelihood. In association with GCCI (Goa Chamber of Commerce and Industry) and I Create, a non-profit group that helps the underprivileged become job creators, Human Touch conducts a five day training programme for sex workers and others who are at a disadvantage where jobs are concerned. If they have an idea, they will be assisted in converting it into a business venture. They will also be given avenues for subsidies and provided mentors to guide them. The first workshop was held from the 16th to 20th March, 2015.
Human Touch was awarded Platinum Seal of Transparency and Public Accountability by Guidestar India at the 4th Edition of World CSR Congress on 18th February, 2015. Peter says, ‘We put all our work out in the public domain. One of the biggest issues today is trust. Whoever wants to give money will always ask if an NGO is reliable and trustworthy.’