New partnership to challenge stigma in Caribbean

Published: 20 October 2004 0:00 CET

Felicita Hikuam* in Port of Spain

September 29 was a bright sunny day in Trinidad, one filled with lots of promise. The International Federation’s office in the capital, Port of Spain, had just signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Caribbean Regional Network of People living with HIV/AIDS (CRN+).

This was a day they had been waiting for for over a year. But an incident the very next day cast a shadow over the excitement of the launch and confirmed the dire need for an increased effort in anti-stigma work.

The MoU, signed by Julian Gore-Booth, the Federation Sub-Regional Office Coordinator, and Yolanda Simon, Regional Coordinator of CRN+, recognises that a number of issues which affect the transmission of HIV are unique to the Caribbean region and need to be addressed separately and independently of traditional HIV/AIDS issues.

“These issues include immigration and migration, the economic impact of HIV/AIDS in various countries of the Caribbean, as well as multicultural perspectives as they relate to masculinity and HIV, the role of women and HIV, and the interaction between violence and HIV,” said Kathleen Ferguson-Stewart, the Federation’s Caribbean Regional HIV/AIDS Officer.

With over 430,000 people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) in the Caribbean, it is, per capita, the second most affected region by HIV/AIDS after sub-Saharan Africa. Of the countries in the Caribbean region the Bahamas, Haiti, and Trinidad and Tobago have national HIV prevalence levels of at least three per cent.

The partnership will focus on reducing HIV/AIDS-related stigma and discrimination and improving the quality of life of PLWHA in the Caribbean. In recognising that stigma and discrimination continue to be the greatest barriers to the implementation of effective care and prevention programmes, to individuals’ willingness to be tested or disclose their status, the organizations began discussions to formalise their collaboration more than a year ago.

They agreed to combine their resources, expertise and strengths to focus on consolidating their HIV/AIDS programmes. They will also increase their strategic focus in anti-stigma and discrimination efforts and expand their work in the area of care and support services.

The day before, CRN+ celebrated its 8th year as a regional organization. Yolanda Simon welcomed the fact that the Federation was partnering “the authentic voices of Caribbean people living with HIV/AIDS in the launch of a joint anti-stigma and discrimination campaign, the common thread being that it matters not which side of the fence we are on. Our commitment is to the people, including all of you gathered here today.”

CRN+ has its secretariat in Trinidad and is dedicated to raising awareness of PLWHA in the Caribbean through advocacy, research, partnership, capacity building, resource mobilization lobbying and sensitisation strategies. It has representation in 26 Dutch-, English-, French- and Spanish-speaking countries and territories throughout the Caribbean. The Federation’s regional delegation in Panama and the sub-regional office in Port of Spain together serve 16 national Red Cross societies, as well as 16 overseas branches and committees of the British, French, Netherlands and US Red Cross Societies.

Among those attending the launch was the International Coordinator of the Global Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS (GNP+), Stu Flavell, who recalled his surprise when four years ago, “two gentlemen walked into our small scruffy office in a basement in the Netherlands, said they were from the Red Cross and that they wanted to partner with us.” Since then, the partnership has gone from strength to strength, and CRN+ is the latest regional branch of GNP+ to form such an alliance with the Federation.

The hope is that this regional partnership will translate into action on the ground between the local network of PLWHA and the National Societies. “We are the only organization present on every island in the region, yet we have not taken advantage of advocating for what we can bring to the table as far as HIV/AIDS is concerned,” said Ferguson-Stewart.

The signing of the MoU was followed by a two-day workshop during which participants from the two organisations discussed how to develop the partnership and fine-tune their common approach. Their efforts led to the development of a first draft of the strategy document which will be reviewed by all involved and eventually implemented by local networks of PLWHA and their national society partners.

The second day of the workshop was overshadowed by an article in a local newspaper which listed the medical records, patient numbers, sex, age, and exact addresses of a number of HIV-positive patients at a hospital on the island.

This breach of patient confidentiality and direct discrimination against the rights of PLWHA put the partnership to an instant test and was handled immediately.

A live television discussion on a popular local television channel provided the ideal opportunity to announce the launch of the partnership and discuss its intention to target stigma and discrimination. Reference was made to the media’s role in fuelling or reducing stigma.

* Felicita Hikuam is coordinator of the International Federation’s Global HIV/AIDS Anti-Stigma Campaign