On the final day of AIDS2012, the HIV and AIDS conference in Washington DC, CAFOD’s Vicky Ahmed discusses discrimination and stigma work being done by a CAFOD partner in Liberia.
This week, as CAFOD prepares to join thousands of activists, policy makers and academics at the International HIV and AIDS conference in Washington DC, the Bong County Awareness Programme (BOCAP) a voluntary collective of young people based in Gbarnga, Liberia, are similarly taking to the streets to talk about some of the stigma surrounding HIV and AIDS.
From the moment I met the group earlier this year and was unwittingly thrust into the centre of their rehearsal for a drama piece, I was struck by the power of their presence in the community. As I shuffled around trying to learn the dance moves, I became aware of dozens of people crowding the rehearsal hut, fighting for a prime viewing spot, hanging from each other’s shoulders to catch a glimpse of what was going on.
I was part of the inner circle of friends
I learned quickly that BOCAP is a group of natural orators with a special way of relating to a wide section of the community. Their passion for addressing stigma and discrimination runs through every phrase, every speech and every campaign they undertake. I remember how being around them was like being whipped up in a whirlwind, but I came away feeling as if I was a part of their inner circle of friends. And I saw that it’s just this enthusiasm, interest and attention they show towards every person they meet that provides the groundwork for people to talk openly, frankly about HIV and AIDS.
This is no mean feat in a country like Liberia where stigma and social exclusion related to HIV and AIDS is a major issue. Cultural attitudes or ignorance can make it difficult for people to talk about HIV and AIDS. Many people in communities such as Liberia where our partners work are scared even to get tested for HIV because of what their families and neighbours might think. They might be nervous to start treatment even when it’s available in case someone finds out and they lose their job or even their home.
Bringing people together
BOCAP works through community mobilisation – bringing people together to create awareness. Through organisation of some of the street dramas I saw that they spread messages about HIV and AIDS. They place special emphasis on social exclusion – working hard to show that people living with HIV can live out their potential, leading full and productive lives in their community. They also work hard to wake people up to the realities, the help available and to stamp out misconceptions and myths.
The wider picture
Looking at BOCAP’s work, it became so clear that HIV and AIDS isn’t just a health issue, it’s one of the biggest threats to development. Globally, the spread of HIV has halted and begun to reverse. In low and middle income countries, 5.2 million people are receiving treatment. The number of children born with HIV has reduced from 500,000 children in 2001 to 370,000 in 2009. The commitment of BOCAP, and CAFOD partners in Liberia in tackling stigma and discrimination is a good example of what can be achieved when the international community works together to overcome barriers and ensure an effective response to HIV and AIDS.
But, crucially, 33.3 million people are living with HIV and 9 million are still in need of treatment, and stigma and discrimination remain one of the key barriers for people to access HIV treatment, care and support.
With continued support from schools and parishes in England and Wales, CAFOD and its partners can continue tackling that stigma.
Follow all the developments in Washington DC on Twitter: #AIDS2012