Fighting Stigma and Fear: An HIV Counselor Tells Her Story
“People will tell you their stories, their problems and you end up taking these stories with you to bed at night. It is really challenging. But when you see the benefit of the counseling that you give and that people are able to start living a ‘positive’ life despite their HIV status, you can feel happy.”
Sister Meaza (nurses are called “Sister” in Ethiopia) has worked for a total of 15 non-governmental organizations. Her humanitarian career has spanned 30 years of service. She’s very clear that working with the poor and the most vulnerable is her vocation. “I want to work with poor people: people in the bush and refugees. Rich people have their own mechanisms to service themselves; but no one wants to come and serve these people. We are only one of a handful of NGOs working here in Beninshangul-Gumuz region.”"HIV Doesn't Discriminate"
IRC’s Voluntary Counseling and Testing (VCT) service, which has been operating for nineteen months, not only serves the 14,000 refugees in Sherkole but also the local community. Every week Sister Meaza and her team of mobile counselors and a laboratory technician conduct outreach visits to four local towns, as well as provide a daily counseling and testing service in the refugee camp. “We don’t discriminate between refugees and Ethiopians: HIV doesn’t discriminate!”
“On outreach, we’ll spend half a day on community mobilization through health education and then after lunch we start testing people. It’s easy, people are eager to get tested.”
Sister Meaza says there’s a marked contrast between attitudes and fears around HIV/AIDS in urban areas as compared to in remote, rural communities such as Beninshangul-Gumuz region. Mobilizing people to get tested is a lot easier in her experience in rural areas because stigma around HIV does not exist to the same extent. “People here don’t know the meaning of stigma. They don’t keep their result secret,” explained Sister Meaza. “I am encouraging this attitude because HIV is a killer and is not be hidden. What fear does exists, is around giving the blood, rather than hearing the actual test results.”
Because the demand for VCT services has been so strong among the indigenous people surrounding the camp, IRC has increased the number of visits they make every week. They have also encouraged the local regional health bureau to start providing their own regular VCT services. “Now the authorities are aware of the demand for VCT among the people.” said Sister Meaza. In the longer term IRC’s mobile VCT service in Beninshangul-Gumuz will be handed over to the government health authorities.An Uphill Battle
While interest in getting tested exists outside the camp, inside Sherkole mobilizing the refugees is an uphill battle. So far only six refugees have been identified as having HIV but the number of infected is presumed to be higher. The majority of the refugees living in Sherkole come from South Sudan and their exposure to HIV related issues is limited, so they’re cautious to be tested. However in one zone, where people from the Great Lakes region of Africa live, 99% of the community has been tested. According to Sister Meaza, as soon as the Congolese, Ugandans and Burundians heard about the launch of the VCT service they came to be tested; because they know about the benefits of VCT and they wanted to know their status.
John Kamuhanda, himself from Rwanda, is the president of the IRC sponsored post-test club. The objective of the club is to encourage the refugee community to find out their status and to help fight stigma. The club has 180 members but interest to join is growing. The post-test club members conduct HIV/AIDS sensitizations in the camp and do health education house to house. John agrees that the different ethnic groups in the camp have different attitudes around HIV. “Usage of condoms among refugees in the Great Lakes region is very common because AIDS is a big problem in our countries. Our Sudanese brothers don’t really know about HIV. But I think that if they get tested, they can start a ‘new life’. Then they will have the courage to talk about HIV to their friends and to protect themselves from the virus”