“It’s all about the health of my people”
Advocates for HIV prevention in the Pacific talk about their motivations and challenges
Working to improve the public’s health is no easy task. This difficulty is magnified when the populations that are being targeted are groups marginalized by society, such as men who have sex with men, transgender people and sex workers, and the subject matter — HIV and sexual health — are culturally sensitive. Through the Multi-Country Western Pacific Programme, UNDP is working closely with partners from local community organizations and government to curb the spread of HIV among key populations in 11 Pacific island countries. Recently, we sat down with three partners of the programme to talk about what motivates them to take on this challenging, but much needed work.
“I became involved in the movement because I myself experienced stigma and discrimination against my beliefs.”
These were the words of Agabe Tuinukuafe, a Project Manager with Tonga Leitis Association (TLA), and are illustrative of the deep personal factors that have motivated partners of the programme to dedicate themselves to their cause.
“After the first arrival of HIV in Tonga in 1987 there was a lot of labelling and finger pointing targeting the LGBT community because the first person with HIV was a gay man. That’s why a small group of people came together and formed the Tonga Leitis Association in 1992 — to stop the stigma and discrimination, especially towards men who have sex with men and transgender people but also other key affected populations. Now, TLA is an official, registered NGO. We are the only such LGBT community organization in Tonga.”
In the Pacific region, as in many parts of the world, stigma and discrimination in society towards people with different sexual and gender identities, as well as sex workers and people who use drugs, is prevalent. This has the result of pushing these groups — who are also the populations most at risk of HIV — to the margins of society, and often away from health services.
Agabe and her colleagues have even put their own personal assets towards achieving their organizational goals.
“We decided to fund raise to establish an office and drop-in centre. We asked our family to use our family land to have the project there. For men who have sex with men and transgender people, it is much better to go to the TLA drop-in centre for health services and be referred to the Tonga Family Health Association clinics. If we feel sick, it is much better to go to there, so as to avoid the public health system where we may face stigma and discrimination.”
In Samoa, the programme has partnered with the Ministry of Health to roll out initiatives aimed at improving screening rates and surveillance, and overall prevention, treatment, care and support services.
“I am passionate about my job. I want to be able to look back at my career and see that I’ve done something, that I’ve made a difference. My focus is to look to the future — the young generation. I think this is what drives me,” says A’aone Tanumafili Taveuveu, Principal National HIV/AIDS Capacity Support, Health Sector Monitoring and Resourcing Division, Samoa Ministry of Health.
“It’s all about the health of my people… We need to make sure that our people are healthy, especially the key populations. They are the most vulnerable. And at the end of the day, we don’t want to leave anyone behind.”
“For the most part fa’afafines are open and out in public. Sex workers are a particularly vulnerable risk group, however, given that sex work is not legal in Samoa. We are trying our best to help, implementing activities for them and we want to engage with more of them.”
For Sincera Fritz, she sees the challenges of improving the health of key populations first hand on a daily basis through her work with the Chuuk Women’s Council.
“We do outreach work, condom demonstrations, provide counselling and referral to the hospital for testing for HIV and STIs. We go out to villages, even go out to the local islands by small boat. We now not only cover sex workers but also men who have sex with men and transgender people.”
“These groups face so many challenges — rape and violence, social stigma, discrimination, both by family members and the community. Many feel they are left out, and they think that they are useless. I give them encouragement. And I educate them to change their risky behaviour.”
“Most of these people don’t want to go to the hospital because of stigma and discrimination that fear they’ll face. Instead they prefer to come to our centre where we can provide counselling and referrals to a more friendly, accepting clinic.”
“I give them my time and let them know there is someone that they can speak with. They can open up with me to share their frustrations and anger. I really want to help them.”
While the Chuuk Women’s Council has expanded over the years and is making a difference in the community, it continues to lack some basic necessities.
“But we also have many needs — I’m the only trained counsellor in our organization. We require resources to hire a nurse for our clinic, and transportation to get around to reach the communities with our activities.”