opening minds on HIV

Last Friday and Saturday, in the gaudy “VIP Lounge” of a Bamenda’s Penn Pan Pacific Palace hotel*,we gathered with our colleagues to review and analyse the data from the latest round of monitoring and evaluation for VSO Cameroon’s programs.  In other words, this was the culmination of the groundwork Greg and the M&E committee laid out over the last year.  Yahoo!

Greg in action

While Greg shuffled back and forth between the HIV-AIDS and the Participation and Governance program teams, assisting and facilitating as he went, I had been invited to sit with the HIV analysis group.  I was to bring perspectives from my previous work and experiences in the Far North.  But in the end, discussions had me thinking far beyond our original program analysis group’s tasks – to analyze data, learn from our experiences, and plan for improving VSO Cameroon’s work.

Nothing like a bit of perspective when getting down to work: having peaked at 5.97% in 2002, UNAIDS and the Cameroonian National AIDS Control Committee estimated that the prevalence rate of adults living with HIV stood at 5.1% in 2008.  New government strategies, including in the promised recruitment of 4,500 health professionals, should go a long way towards providing improved care and support to people living with HIV/AIDS.  However, funding for prevention and many other projects in the sector remains quite limited.

Undiscouraged by the statistics, we ploughed ahead. The data showed a tremendous amount of assistance provided by volunteers in helping partner organizations develop better management systems, training community volunteers to deliver care and support, and increasing participation at various levels of program development and decision-making.  Between April and August, one volunteer alone spent almost 700 hours training medical staff in improving hospital patient care.

All in all, much work towards positive change was done.  But, as is always the case, so much more needs to be done to reach the programme’s goals.

Together we drafted many recommendations towards refining VSO Cameroon’s program direction.  I personally enjoyed the discussions that brought us to this point – especially those ensuing from the challenges and intellectual dilemmas facing volunteers in the field.  Two of these stuck in my mind: stigma and mainstreaming.

Greg previously blogged about stigma and what it means in general terms.  In our analysis group discussion we went well beyond ideas of discrimination.  I applauded the person who asked, very pointedly, “do we really, truly, know what stigma means to the clients and beneficiaries of the partner organizations we work with?”  So when the conversation steered towards gauging whether assisting clients in developing income-generating activities decreases or increases stigma, I had to fully open my own mind to the fact that “we know we don’t know”.  If we assist people develop businesses because they have HIV, is stigma really reduced?  Are livelihoods actually improved?  These questions – and many more – will hopefully be answered through asking our partner’s clients.

I look forward to seeing the results of this research that could fundamentally challenge so many of our assumptions.

The discussions on mainstreaming also got my brain synapses firing.  Mainstreaming generally means including cross-cutting themes such as HIV-AIDS, gender, disability, environment, human rights, into other seemingly unrelated programs.  Well undertaken, mainstreaming can bring a more holistic approach to development.  For example, take mainstreaming gender into HIV/AIDS programmes. If done too narrowly – for example emphasizing “women” who are the majority of HIV infected persons in Cameroon – then do we risk making HIV/AIDS seem like it’s only a women’s disease? If we are inclusive, and we should really be, then men aught to be involved in coming up with and discussing solutions.  After all, while fewer men are infected, they are equally affected.

I had to ask myself, is this then really gender mainstreaming or simply a reflection of the male-female reality?  And if we use gender in its true sense – in a country where homosexuality is illegal and there is very little understanding of transgender – are we kidding ourselves thinking we can mainstream something taboo?  Good thing the HIV/AIDS analysis group decided to do more research on questions like these.

I have very rarely left an intense 2-day session feeling quite this curious and engaged in what’s to come next.  So it’s a blessing that through my work on inclusion and sustainable livelihoods, I continue to work with the HIV program staff and volunteer colleagues in the field.

Congrats HIV Team!  Well done!

The HIV Analysis Team: Catherine, Caroline, Marceline, Heather, Francis, Greg, Sylvestre, Dario, Dorcas and Sandrine


*No joke.  Even Greg wouldn’t stoop to making that alliteration up!

~ by Caroline Spira on October 25, 2010.

One Response to “opening minds on HIV”

  1. thank you so much for such an informative article. HIV has become so unpopular with the media, that is hard to remmember that is still a big issue.

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