Regional Forum to showcase proven grassroots initiatives to tackle HIV/AIDS stigma and discrimination and boost HIV prevention
Colombo, March 15, 2010 ─ Alliance Lanka and Lanka Plus organizations of Sri Lanka joined over 200 members of civil society organizations, academia, governments, and development partners from across the region in Delhi on March 15-16 to share best practices and lessons learned in tackling stigma and discrimination. The Forum was a coming together of 26 winners of the World Bank’s South Asia Regional Development Marketplace (SARDM) 2008. It was designed to give a broader audience an opportunity to learn from the SARDM winners from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. These innovative pilot programs were financed by a grant of one million dollars and engaged with marginalized populations most affected by stigma over a 12-18 month period.
“These remarkable programs have now touched the lives of 100,000 people across South Asia,” said Julian Schweitzer, the World Bank’s acting Vice President for Human Development. “From HIV- positive people trained to use radio journalism to fight discrimination to traditional folk art trying to change people’s attitude and practice, the results have been very impressive. At our Knowledge Forum in Delhi this week, we are learning about tried and true ideas that really work. Our hope is that we can persuade government and community leaders and others to take these on-board and expand them and take them nationwide.”
Across the South Asia region, over 2.5 million people are living with HIV and AIDS. Curative and preventive efforts are undermined by the stigma and discrimination associated with AIDS. In addressing this very issue the forum also discussed other barriers to effective HIV prevention by communities.
Sri Lanka is a low HIV prevalence country and the Government and non-governmental actors like Alliance Lanka and Lanka Plus, the two winners at the SARDM from Sri Lanka have done a tremendous job of maintaining the low prevalence, through general awareness building as well as targeted interventions.
Alliance Lanka’s showcased a project that focused on improving awareness, education and services on HIV in a “non threatening environment” to facilitate voluntary counseling and referral for testing. Over 12,000 questionnaires completed by visitors to the roadside stands show that general awareness of HIV was high, however, in-depth information about the modes of HIV transmission and prevention methods was fairly low. “These findings demonstrate that the general population in the intervention communities are in need of additional efforts to increase knowledge and awareness of HIV and decrease stigma,” said Swarna Kodagoda, Project Director of Alliance Lanka
The Lanka Plus project worked towards empowering and reducing self stigma among Lanka Plus members (of Sri Lanka) through skills training, advocacy for employment and income generating activities. Under this project a training program for technical skill building was developed and 20 women were trained in a pilot marketing project. A website (http://www.lankaplus.org) for social marketing as well as an income generating activity was launched. “As a result of the project, the participants‟ self-confidence seems to have increased, and they continue to apply management skills they learned from the training to their business ventures,” said Ms. Priyanthi Kumari, Project Coordinator, Lanka Plus.
Despite these very good interventions high risk factors are prevalent and there is no room for complacency in Sri Lanka. The key actions required now are: (a) to maintain effective and continuous surveillance; (b) continue stigma reduction activities; and (c) to increase coverage of interventions targeted to high risk vulnerable population groups.
In addition to the SARDM winners who will share their results, community groups funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s ‘Avahan’ program will also present their experiences on how to involve community members throughout the continuum of prevention, treatment and care. The Forum also provides an opportunity for national programs to discuss their experiences in expanding prevention programs, and to showcase proven ways for community-based organizations to work more effectively with media, secure financial backing, and to monitor and evaluate their programs
“We all know that stigma is an important road block to vulnerable groups wanting to access HIV/AIDS services. But unfortunately we do not know enough about how to overcome and tackle stigma. These innovations that have been done in countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh and Nepal, reach out to about a hundred thousand people which is a remarkable number and we hope to learn from their success as the experiments and techniques that have been used are innovative and ground breaking,” said Shabana Azmi, the renowned film actor and social activist who was the Special Guest of the World Bank’s at its South Asia Regional Development Marketplace award ceremony in May, 2008.
“Experience from these grassroots initiatives show that when communities are engaged and empowered, behavioral and social changes happen, stigma, discrimination and violence are tackled up front, and barriers to effective HIV prevention are reduced,” said Paul De Lay, Deputy Executive Director of UNAIDS, which coordinates the AIDS efforts and resources of ten UN system organizations to help the world prevent new HIV infections, care for people living with HIV, and mitigate the impact of the epidemic.