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Hope is vital
by Wivina Belmonte


In the battle against HIV/AIDS, hope is vital.
As part of a unique initiative the International Federation is encouraging the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement to break the silence within, by creating an environment free from discrimination for all volunteers and staff who are infected or affected by the virus.

Josephine Chiturumani doesn't look like a warrior, but she is one. Armed with an unshakeable determination, a tireless spirit and an enchanting sense of humour, she is on the front lines of the Red Cross fight against HIV/AIDS in Zimbabwe.

Josephine supervises of the home-based care programme in Masvingo province, a programme so successful it has been used as a model by other National Societies.
She is a Red Cross volunteer. She is also HIV-positive.
"If you are caring for someone who is HIV-positive and you yourself are HIV-positive then we will be able to understand each other better," she says. "It really makes us close because they know we are in the same boat. They know at one time or another I have had, or will have, the same problems they are going through. So they come for advice on how best to look after themselves and how best they can deal with their situation. What we encourage most for people living with HIV/AIDS is to learn to live positively."

Josephine is not alone. Estimates show she is only one of more than 140,000 volunteers and staff across the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement who are either HIV-positive or have AIDS.

According to Alvaro Bermejo, head of the International Federation's health department, theirs is a vital contribution. "People living with HIV/AIDS know, more than anyone, the psychological, physical, social and in many cases religious pain related to HIV/AIDS," he says. "Their involvement and collaboration is indispensable in all efforts in the field of HIV/AIDS care, prevention, risk reduction and the fight against discrimination and removal of stigma. So, their active participation in the fight against HIV/AIDS is a must. To encourage their participation we must create a compassionate, tolerant and supportive environment in which they can feel welcomed and valued."

Building a better 'home'

In an effort to create that kind of environment the International Federation is spearheading a unique initiative. The aim is to make the Red Cross Red Crescent a more welcoming place for all those who are infected and affected by the virus and to break the crippling silence that has surrounded the issue in the past, in part by recruiting people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) to work in AIDS-related programmes.

"In the AIDS fight activism is the most difficult form of volunteerism," says David Mukasa, who is HIV-positive and leads AIDS awareness training sessions with the Uganda Red Cross. "But sharing experiences helps you find a kind of therapy that works for you. When we are open, we stop living in fear of being an outcast because of HIV-infection. It gives us a feeling of em-powerment knowing we are making a positive impact for ourselves and others."

Breaking the silence has to do with creating an open environment free from discrimination and free of stigma. In certain cases, however, breaking the silence serves a simpler and more crucial purpose - it's a lifeline. Ramon Acevedo, from the Dominican Republic, was diagnosed HIV-positive in 1995. He says when he was told it was like hearing a death sentence. He joined REDOBE (a local group which brings together people living with HIV/AIDS) and volunteered to work in AIDS-awareness workshops co-sponsored by the Dominican Red Cross. "It gave me the hope and the will to live," he says. "When you are comfortable enough to talk about your condition, it's as though a weight is lifted off your shoulders. You feel good and you feel useful, too. Part of what we try to achieve in the workshops, at the very least, is to give people the right information and the truth about the risks they run. It's not right that people become infected out of ignorance."

Ramon Acevedo, HIV-positive volunteer, providing information, awareness and support in the Dominican Republic.

Josephine Chiturumani, HIV-positive volunteer, providing care, comfort and companionship in Zimbabwe.

Josephine Chiturumani being interviewed for "Living with...", a video about how HIV/AIDS affects volunteers and staff in the Movement.

Last September, Josephine Chiturumani got on a plane for the first time in her life. She flew from Zimbabwe to Burkina Faso to attend the 5th Pan African Conference in Ouagadougou where, for the first time ever, she delivered a speech. She talked about what it is like being an HIV-positive Red Cross volunteer and about the home-based care programme she works on in Zimbabwe.

This is an excerpt of what she said:We were 32 care facilitators trained in basic nursing care, wound dressing, oral care, bed bathing, counselling, and were given information on HIV/AIDS. We went to a local hospital to get a feel for how a sick person looks and how to feed them. But we were not prepared for what we were going to see in the field because people in hospital were in better shape.

We give health education to families, we counsel the clients or the family and teach infection control. We are there to teach the family members how to care for the sick. But at times it's very difficult.

The experiences I have gained in working with people who are living with HIV/AIDS, I tell you it's so touching. Maybe we have got an advantage that most of us care facilitators, more than 50 per cent, are HIV-positive so we know how it feels to be HIV-positive.

The care facilitators themselves, I am speaking from my experience, they get sick. When they get sick they are not treated because hospitals say, "You have to pay". They don't consider that we are volunteers. We don't have anything. They just say "pay", because they see my uniform. So far I've lost 11 care facilitators, most of them were HIV-positive. This year alone I've already lost four of my care facilitators. And you know, it's so painful because these people would have been able to care for the terminally ill.

During my day-to-day activities, I have realized that people living with HIV/AIDS need our love, care and support. It's not only for those people who have got home-based care programmes who should give that love, care and support. The whole community should get involved in the loving and caring part of it. Everybody should be involved. Everybody should give that support. Because I know how it feels to be HIV-positive.

Safeguarding our principles

For some the issue, though obviously complicated, is eminently simple and has to do with living up to the Movement's Fundamental Principles.

"Some of us come from conservative societies that don't necessarily accept people from outside the mainstream," says Razia Essack-Kauaria, secretary general of Namibia Red Cross. "I really think it's important for the Red Cross to accept everyone and particularly people living with HIV/AIDS. 'Humanity' is our founding principle. I think we need to practise that. We need to make people who have HIV/AIDS feel comfortable and feel that they can contribute positively."

But the goal of making the Red Cross Red Crescent a better home for people living with HIV/AIDS is not driven by humanitarian principles alone. In certain cases the impact of HIV/AIDS, and the silence around it, has been devastating in personal and institutional terms. "In certain parts of Africa you cannot guarantee an institutional future," Razia says. "You have people who have years and years of Red Cross experience, have HIV/AIDS and then they are gone." Gone and sometimes, sadly, unacknowledged.

On the front lines, in their battle to continue making a contribution, HIV-positive volunteers have coined a phrase: HIV stands for Hope Is Vital.

"So many people have passed away over so many years," says David Mukasa from the Uganda Red Cross. "There is a way to honour them. If we move from all the negative feelings, fear, denial, stigmatization towards positive living with hope, love, understanding and gain complete self-esteem, that way, I think we've won."

Wivina Belmonte
Federation editor of Red Cross, Red Crescent.

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