No Questions Barred

From 2005 till this January, Samvad HIV helpline has reached out to over 1.5 lakhs callers

The phone rings almost constantly in this small, two-room flat hidden among the rows of shops and houses in a noisy street of Bhawani Peth. "Am I at risk," is an oft-repeated question heard from the other side of the line. On this side, seven nameless and faceless counsellors answer in soft, measured tones, drawing out reasons for their callers' fears and giving careful and precise advice.

The Samvad helpline for HIV/AIDS, an initiative of the Pune-based Muktaa Charitable Foundation (MCF), has reached out to more than 1,50,000 callers till January 2013 and the numbers are growing steadily. "We get between 90-100 calls every day. Questions range from what HIV means to whether an infected person can marry to how they can deal with social stigma. The counsellors are trained to address each issue truthfully, yet tactfully," says Praful Madhave, who is project manager at MCF, which was started in 2005.

The counsellors at Samvad believe their advantage lies in the anonymity of both the caller and the counsellor. "While interacting face to face, people hesitate and try to hide information. However, on the phone they are willing to bare the truths and openly clear their doubts since there is no name or face to the voice they hear. From the counsellor's side too, this ensures a non-judgmental attitude. We never ask for names or addresses," says Ramachandra Waghmare, MCF's promotion manager.

The job, however, is much more difficult because the window of interaction is entirely dependent on the caller. "There is only so much time we have on hand. One wrong answer can ruin a life so we have to be very careful," says one counsellor. Another counsellor admits that "it can get frustrating when we know the caller is in a desperate situation and needs physical help."

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