An Interview with Richard Gere—Turning the Tide Against AIDS in India
February 2010 —Richard Gere is recognized internationally for his award-winning work as a film actor and social activist. For more than 25 years, he has been deeply involved in global humanitarian issues, and is especially concerned about the spread of AIDS in India and the lack of care facilities there for people living with HIV/AIDS. He has been honored for his humanitarian work by amfAR, Amnesty International, the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, and the Harvard AIDS Institute. He is also the recipient of the Eleanor Roosevelt Humanitarian Award and the Marian Anderson Award.
TREAT Asia Report: What inspired you to get involved with the struggle against HIV/AIDS in India?
Richard Gere: At the time I got involved with AIDS in India, the disease had so much stigma attached to it that I don't think anyone knew how to approach it. Outside of the nongovernmental organizations [NGOs], many members of Indian society were essentially turning an almost blind eye to the issue. Based on the scale of devastation we were witnessing in many countries in Africa compounded by the sheer numbers and potential threat in high-prevalence areas in India, it seemed obvious that if we mobilized the communities that had influence, we'd be able to make a difference.
TA Report: Based on your long experience and connection with both India and the AIDS epidemic, what approaches to HIV/AIDS prevention seem to work best?
Gere: Making people less afraid of living with it and living around it, helping individuals recognize that simple prevention measures can be put in place to stem the spread of the virus. I think, ultimately, trying to educate communities that HIV/AIDS affects everyone, not only those infected with the virus.
TA Report: In 2004, the Gere Foundation established the Heroes Project, which was aimed at reducing HIV/AIDS stigma and discrimination in India through a nationwide public education campaign. In which ways has the project been most effective?
Gere: I think Heroes was most successful with its public service campaign. The project, launched in partnership with the Gates Foundation and Parmeshwar Godrej, energized NGOs and governmental agencies, brought the most at-risk groups into the mainstream through large public events, and directly engaged the Bollywood community to help humanize the pandemic.
TA Report: Data released by UNAIDS indicates that the AIDS epidemic in India is concentrated among vulnerable groups such as sex workers, men who have sex with men, and injection drug users. What implications does this have for fighting HIV/AIDS in India?
Gere: It means we have to work harder to reach those at higher risk and that we have to target our education efforts to reach those who are most directly threatened by HIV. Just because an infected demographic may be out of sight doesn't mean they're out of reach or any less important to reach.
TA Report: How have attitudes toward HIV/AIDS changed in India in recent years?
Gere: I feel that while there is still a great deal of work to be done, stigma and discrimination associated with the disease have tapered significantly. I think the government has adopted a positive attitude toward the issue, and education and treatment are far more accessible than say, ten years ago.