Richard Gere, Bipasha Basu in anti-AIDS rally

MUMBAI: An event brought together more than 15,000 sex workers and peer educators from Mumbai and Thane to demonstrate their solidarity in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

The event featured appearances by Hollywood actor and co-chair Heroes Project Richard Gere, senior civil servants from the Government of Maharashtra, Chandra Iyengar, and Dr. Vijay Satbir Singh, co-chair Heroes Project Parmeshwar Godrej and celebrities like Bipasha Basu, Urmila Matondkar, Shaan and Mandira Bedi.

The event known as ‘Atmavishwas,’ (faith within) was organized and hosted by the Aastha Project of Family Health International, Maharashtra State AIDS Control Society (MSACS) and the Mumbai District AIDS Control Society (MDACS). Atmavishwas demonstrated the central role played by the sex worker community in driving HIV prevention efforts.

Aastha is supported by Avahan, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s India AIDS Initiative. Avahan Director Ashok Alexander said, “I am inspired by the leadership of the women gathered here today. They are the architects and drivers of HIV prevention efforts and their involvement reinforces that community driven programs stand the greatest chance for success.”

Richard Gere, Hollywood actor and Co-Chair Heroes Project, was overwhelmed by the level of support extended towards community-led HIV prevention efforts. Speaking on the occasion, he said, “This event is in recognition of the courage displayed by the sex worker community in taking ownership of their lives. It is truly inspiring to witness the convergence of societal leaders, community members, civil servants and celebrities to acknowledge their incomparable effort in playing a central role in HIV prevention.”

Heroes Project co-chair Parmeshwar Godrej said, “This unique event will go a long way in reducing stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV. It is also a reminder that we all have a role to play in combating the disease and that collaborative efforts can bring about a change.”

Mandira Bedi, the host of the event was greeted with cheers and excitement as was an appearance by Urmila Matondkar who spoke about society’s collective role in fighting HIV/AIDS. Performances by Bipasha Basu, Shweta Salve, Shaan and a brigade of Indian Idols – Abhijeet Sawant, Rahul Vaidya, Aditi Paul, Amit Sana, Prajakta Shukre and Harish infused gaiety and a sense of celebration to the hard work of the community members present at the event.