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India gets first 24 hour LGBT phone counseling service

The Saahay Project aims to provide 24/7 support for Indian gay and bisexual men and transgender women in need of health information and counseling
An Indian transgender woman, or Hijra.
Photo by Michael Garten

India has its first 24 hour, 7 days a week counseling service for men who have sex with men and transgender women thanks to international human development NGO FHI360.

The Saahay Project help line will provide support counseling and sexual health information to gay and bisexual men and transgender women who dial the toll-free number 1800-2000-113
across the Indian states of Chhattisgarh, Delhi and Maharashtr.

While India’s LGBT community is increasingly visible in large cities like Bangalore, Mumbai, New Delhi and Kolkata, the Saahay Project hopes to be able to reach those LGBTs who live in smaller urban centers and towns where there may not be established LGBT networks to reach people by.

The Saahay Project was launched at the beginning of September by FHI360 as part of an research study to determine the effectiveness of using a telephone help line in reaching out to men who have sex with men and promoting safe sex.

‘With this help line in place it would help to reach out to more and more of the community members who need health services especially HIV/AIDS and yet are afraid to seek them due to social stigma,’ FHI360 country director Dr Bitra George said.

‘The Saahay help line has many unique features,’ Saahay Project director Dr Ashok Agarwal said.

‘It has been customized into the help line to ensure caller confidentiality and identity, a prime concern among the hard to reach population which the help line aims to reach out to. These features include non-recording of call and non-identification of caller number to preserve the identity of the caller at all times. The caller is also not asked personal identifiers like name, address and telephone number.’

People who call the number can receive information and counseling by speaking to a counselor, or hear recorded messages via interactive voice response (IVR), or receive health messages through automated SMS.

FHI360 hope the help line will be especially useful for men who have sex with men and transgender women who have not come out or who do not want to access services from government targeted intervention projects for whatever reasons.

The study is being conducted by FHI360 with approval from the Indian Government’s Department of AIDS Control and is technically and financially supported by international health NGO PATH and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA).

The project is being carried out in collaboration with LGBT rights foundation The Humsafar Trust and several other LGBT rights groups in the states of Chhattisgarh, Delhi and Maharashtra.

‘The Humsafar Trust and FHI360 have partnered on various initiatives in the past and have joined hands once again with an aim to reach out to men who have sex with men and transgenders who continue to remain invisible and fear accessing health services,’ Humsafar Trust CEO Vivek Anand said.

‘The Saahay help line aims to bridge that gap and strengthen the National Program with MSM and Transgender community in India.’

If the helpline is found useful, Saahay Project will advocate with India’s Department of AIDS Control to roll the project out across the country.

The Saahay Project is also reaching out to people using social media and has a Facebook page.

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