Andrei Neacsu in Nairobi
A healthy-looking young man sits surrounded by a serene-looking group; an adult couple have their hands on the young man’s shoulders, while kneeling in front of him, another youth holds his hand.
The young man is HIV positive, but he and those with him are protected enveloped in a bright light, embraced by protective hands that form a barrier against black “stigmatising” arrows.
This was the subject of the poster, designed by 19-year-old Eritrean student Brhane Andemariam, that won a Red Cross Red Crescent poster competition aimed at intensifying the fight against stigma and discrimination. Brhane’s artwork was selected by an independent jury composed of representatives of People Living with HIV and AIDS (PLWHA) in Africa.
“Let’s fight HIV and AIDS all together by embracing the HIV-positive people. Let’s care better for the people living with HIV and AIDS whose role in the fight against the fast spread of the epidemic is crucial,” Brhane, a volunteer of the Maekel branch of the Eritrean Red Cross Society, said in a letter accompanying his poster.
According to a 2001 survey, 2.8 per cent of Eritrea’s 4.4 million inhabitants are HIV-positive, with clear indications that the situation is worsening.
“Brhane’s naïve approach synthesises the partnership between people living with HIV and AIDS and the Red Cross and Red Crescent,” says D. Onyango, selection jury member and Executive Director of Women Fighting AIDS in Kenya (WOFAK).
Dorothy Odhiambo, a senior HIV/AIDS partnership officer with the International Federation - coincidentally on an Ambassador of Hope mission to Eritrea, helping to build bridges between the Eritrean National Association of PLWHA (BIDHO), the Red Cross, and the rest of the civil society - brought the happy news to Brhane.
“Through this simple means of expression, people came together and expressed their solidarity with those, too many, who are dying in darkness and shame,” Odhiambo said. “It is encouraging to see that the winners did not portray people living with HIV as living skeletons – as they are too often unjustly portrayed - but as normal human beings. There is hope for a more human, less ignorant society in East Africa.”
For 17-year-old Sylvia Morumbwa from Nairobi, the solution to HIV/AIDS problems has three key ingredients: “education, access to appropriate nutrition and medication and a large dose of humanity”.
In her second-placed poster, a couple of young women hug each other and smile happily in front of a dispensary where a truck carrying anti-retro-viral drugs is parked, a smiling teacher conducts an “HIV/AIDS awareness” session and nearby, there are boxes and bags of fresh food.
Despite the optimistic message of Sylvia’s work, everyday reality for this young member of Campaigners for an AIDS-free society (CAFS), a non-governmental organization, is completely different.
Sylvia spends most of her time working in Kibera, described as one of the largest slums in Africa. Home to nearly half a million souls, well known for its lack of security and basic facilities, Kibera has become a synonym for fear and disgust for many “respectable” citizens.
It is also one of the places where the spread of the HIV virus has reached frightening proportions, largely as a result of extreme gender inequalities.
“In simple terms, in sub-Saharan Africa, when it comes to sex, men decide while women, traditionally, have a very weak influence,” says Dr. Anders Milton, a member of the Federation’s HIV/AIDS Governance Group.
Milton, who is also the President of the Swedish Red Cross, would like to see greater awareness of the role male behaviour plays in spreading the disease, and greater recognition of the place of women in civil society.
“Male-self images and cultural practices must change – and women must be empowered,” says Milton, who recently visited the slums of Nairobi and was deeply affected, especially by the plight of its female residents.
In those slums, Sylvia works hard for little reward, save for the smiles of the people she helps. The happy village in her poster is a dream, a hope of what the Kibera slums could become, should authorities and the civil society decide to share her vision.
Her drawing, underlining the need for increased access to adequate treatment for people living with HIV/AIDS coincides with a firm engagement by the International Federation to help make anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs available to those who need it, including its own volunteers. From 2004, a series of pilot projects adding an ARV component to their existing HIV/AIDS programmes will be implemented by the Red Cross Societies of Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda.
There have been many significant achievements in the past 20 years - in research and treatment, for example – yet the main reasons for the continued spread of HIV/AIDS remains the stigma attached to it.
“On a continent where more than 28 million people live with the killer virus, efforts must be seriously increased to break cultural barriers and beliefs that have made it taboo. Otherwise, we risk losing the battle against AIDS,” Anders Milton says.
Third place in the competition went to Taroo, a volunteer from Madagascar. His dramatic poster, in which people are rescued from a whirlpool of the letters HIV, has the slogan: “Open your eyes stigma kills!”
On Taroo’s island privacy is rare and communities are quick to judge those who it considers to have “stepped out of line”. His perception of the effects of stigma is shared by the Malagasy Red Cross, which intends to intensify its fight against discrimination in close partnership with Finoana Fanantenana Fitiavana (Belief, Hope, Love) the association of people living with HIV/AIDS on the island.
The winning posters will be used in East Africa as part of the 2004 global anti-stigma campaign involving Red Cross and Red Crescent staff and volunteers as well as members of the Network of African People Living with HIV and AIDS (NAP+).
“During the past eight months a lot of interaction took place between children and adults, living with HIV/AIDS or not. The real winner of this competition is East Africa’s civil society, which has taken a little step further the fight against a bigger killer than the virus itself - stigma and discrimination,” says Patrick Couteau, the Federation’s regional health and care advisor.
Launched on 8 May 2003 – World Red Cross Red Crescent day – and concluded symbolically on World AIDS day, the poster competition aimed to promote more understanding and compassion for people living with HIV/AIDS in East Africa.
The poster selection jury was composed of representatives from Women Fighting Aids in Kenya (WOFAK), The Association of People with AIDS in Kenya (TAPWAK), National Empowerment of People Living with HIV/AIDS (NEPHAK) and the Movement of Men Living with AIDS in Kenya (MOMAK).