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From outcast to role model

By Andrei Neacsu

Dorothy Odhiambo and the Federation are working together to fight stigma and discrimination both inside and outside the Red Cross and Red Crescent. One of Dorothy's biggest challenges is to help the Federation transform its written policies to support staff diagnosed with the HIV/AIDS virus into concrete actions.

In 1989 the life of the young mother of three year-old Linda, Dorothy Odhiambo, almost fell apart. Dorothy, then a teacher, was refused a job without being given a specific reason. Not long after, she learned she was HIV positive. Her doctor said she had barely three years left to live.

Dorothy has come a long way since that unfortunate period in 1989. Had she not had such a strong personality she may have given up. "I felt like I was put on death row," she recalls. "You may not even have three years to go; you'd better find someone to take care of your child after you die," a doctor told her, offering no further explanation or consolation. Today Dorothy is part of a regional Federation initiative to encourage linkages between national associations of people living with HIV and AIDS and National Societies in eastern Africa.

Using Dorothy's life experience, the programme addresses critical issues such as stigma and discrimination or adequate care for those affected by the virus. "These activities create a conducive environment which is turning the Red Cross into a better working place for those living with HIV/AIDS," says Dorothy, who joined the Nairobi delegation as regional partnership of?cer in May.


Pioneers in fighting stigma

Thirteen years ago, HIV/AIDS was not considered a problem by most Kenyans and Africans. People thought it was a foreign disease. Concepts such as counselling were unheard of. Stigma, expulsion from the community, insults - even by students against teachers - were common.

Dorothy is convinced that the stress caused by stigma and public rejection is a bigger killer than the virus itself. "Many people abandoned faith and let themselves die when faced with such an overwhelming, and in those times certain, death sentence," she explains.

Dorothy chose to fight. With a group of friends she founded the Network of African People Living with HIV/AIDS (NAP+) and was one of the founders of the Association of Women Fighting AIDS in Kenya. In 1995, she left the education system to dedicate herself to HIV/AIDS prevention work. She became a representative in the UNAIDS programme coordination board and was elected member of Kenya's HIV/AIDS Task Force dealing with legal and ethical issues.

The Federation too has come a long way. "I simply wanted to take those nice words written in guidelines and policies and turn them into reality," says Patrick Couteau, regional HIV/AIDS coordinator, recalling how he prepared an unusual job announcement to be placed in several local newspapers. The announcement advertised the regional delegation's search for an individual who is HIV positive to manage prevention programmes.

For Patrick Couteau there is no substitute for direct experience, and the contribution of people living with the virus is crucial to the Red Cross Red Crescent. At a time when companies and corporations around the world are hesitantly tackling the issue of medical coverage for workers living with HIV/AIDS, the regional delegation, with Dorothy's help, managed to renegotiate a better insurance scheme for all its Kenya-based employees

"Today, any colleague who is tested HIV positive has access, through the delegation's insurance, to adequate treatment - particularly anti-retroviral drugs which are still quite expensive for the African people despite some reduction in prices," says Dorothy.

Official statistics prove Dorothy right. In Kenya only 7,000 people of the 2.5 million affected by HIV and AIDS are currently on anti-retrovirals. Says Dorothy: "At a national level we should ideally look at a participation of the state in sharing the cost of the drug if we are to increase accessibility to treatment."

Couteau's team is moving ahead with efforts to strengthen local Red Cross capacities to respond to issues arising from HIV/AIDS, in particular stigma and discrimination, both inside the organization and within the community at large.

"We are the example to follow and must ensure that other colleagues in the eastern African region understand and implement the policies developed with regard to people living with HIV/AIDS. Red Cross Red Crescent societies should start looking at employing focal people, like Dorothy, who could handle and address not only external but also in-house issues related to HIV/AIDS," adds Couteau.

A concrete example of this effort is the programme "Ambassadors of Hope". This programme was initiated by NAP+ and supported by the regional delegation. Currently, it is training people living with HIV to become role models able to advocate for the rights of their peers in countries where HIV/AIDS remains taboo.

The last training session in Pretoria, South Africa in September, was also attended by Red Cross staff fromEritrea, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda. "Some of them will be sent as Ambassadors of Hope to the Red Crescent societies of Djibouti, Somalia, and Sudan," says Couteau.

"My colleagues sometimes forget my status. So I think this education has contributed a lot to their behaviour," explains Dorothy Odhiambo.




Job satisfaction

Meanwhile, along with the global antistigma campaign - launched in May - the workplace programme within the regional delegation continues. Regularly, external speakers come to explain and discuss existing policies, trends and rights of those living with HIV/AIDS.
"I am sure my colleagues sometimes even forget my status. We just talk like colleagues, we share, we laugh, we crack jokes, we just work normally. So I think this education and awareness has contributed a lot to their behaviour," explains Dorothy

With statistics indicating that between 40 and 50 per cent of Kenya's hospital beds, excluding those in maternity wards, are currently occupied by patients with HIV/AIDS-related illnesses, people's fear of what result a test may bring is justified.

"However, most of the colleagues are now gathering courage to go through a voluntary test for the first time, so I help those who approach me to deal with the anxiety and the emotions linked to that step," says Dorothy.

She believes that the Nairobi regional delegation is a "hospitable working place for all, because there is literally no discrimination in it", and she encourages other delegations to follow the eastern African example.

She would like her message to be heard by the entire Red Cross Red Crescent Movement. "You cannot claim you are a home for 'those living with', and you will not take your work further if you don't have the involvement of a person living with HIV/AIDS."

Andrei Neacsu
Andrei Neacsu is Federation regional information delegate in Nairobi.

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