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Reducing Stigma in Honduran Communities Affected by HIV/AIDS

Published 01/14/2011 by Global Communities

Bonifacia Pitillo, one of the most active Garifuna leaders in the prevention of HIV/AIDS, has also been profoundly affected by the disease. Her stepfather died of the disease in 1998 and three years later she discovered her mother had the disease.
Bonifacia quickly realized she didn’t know enough about HIV/AIDS. “My mother liked to share food with me, and I would accept it, but then I would throw it out. I took this attitude because I thought that she could infect me with a hug or just touching me.” And it wasn’t just Bonifacia’s mother who suffered this discrimination. The community began to gossip that Bonifacia also carried the virus. Her husband eventually abandoned her for fear of being infected.
Even though she and her family were victims of discrimination, Bonifacia took notice of invitations that the Director, Marla Martinez, gave her to participate in an HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention project aimed at reducing discrimination against infected people. Bonifacia began to attend informative workshops in March 2006.
“Marla helped me understand that AIDS is not transmitted by a hug, or by the sharing of utensils. I decided to get involved in the project to have more knowledge and change attitudes towards my mother, also to give more information to my children so that they don’t avoid me in case I catch the virus.”
By March of 2007, Bonifacia had become a leader of the project. But achieving changes in her community wasn’t easy. The Garifunas had been identified as an HIV/AIDS vulnerable group: in 2006, 4.5 percent of the population was infected. Young people between 15 and 24 were the most at-risk, and the Center of Promotion of Health and Family Assistance (CEPROSAF), part of the Program of Strengthening the National Response to HIV/AIDS, in partnership with CHF International, decided to focus their efforts on prevention among these young people.
The project confronted many challenges. Bonifacia traveled the village and visited the same houses up to four times to convince the youth to come to workshops. Even after these efforts participation was very low. In addition, the few participants were stigmatized in the community because it was believed that they were carriers of the virus. Many people in the community also refused to use a condom. People threw them in the street, or inflated them to play with.
In the face of these challenges and failures, in 2008 CEPROSAF and the leaders of the project implemented a new strategy that has been much more successful. Instead of targeting just the children of families, who were sometimes opposed to their participation, workshops now include the family as a whole. Workshops are held in the neighborhoods: young leaders are identified and asked if their families are available to lend their house to neighborhood training. The family constructs a list of 25 guests, usually family members and neighbors. These types of meetings have increased the attendance exponentially, as well as increased acceptance of the topic of sexuality between the community.
Another strategy that has made the intervention better and increased community participation is the tailoring of each intervention to the community’s needs. It is now known that the workshops can’t be organized in the morning, because the women are working in the home, or during the weekends because it is precious time off. Now the majority of activities are done in the afternoons. Another significant strategy was the cooperation between local government and the community. The Community Board, as it’s called, became so involved that today it is the main implementer of the project.
“The great thing about the project is that now it’s practically ours, we own it,” affirms Braulio Martinez, president of the Community Board.
Today the project has achieved profound changes in the Garifuna community. It is estimated that close to 1,500 of the 2,000 residents of El Triunfo participate in prevention activities. 5,000 condoms are distributed per quarter, reflecting the community demand and some clubs, bars and restaurants have also begun distributing them.
According to Braulio, infidelity among men has been reduced, evidenced by improved home stability. There have also been changes among the women, who have begun to discuss home violence and sexuality much more openly. Braulio also affirmed that the discrimination among infected people has been reduced because even though “there are 48 causes of HIV among the community, nobody knows who exactly has the virus.” Since the beginning of 2009, when the use of the “quick test” for HIV began, the number of people who take the test has increased from 2 to 10 people a week.
The project has not only had affects on the community in general, but also on lives of particular people. After having an unstable sex life, Bonifacia took the decision that the best method of prevention was abstinence. “Now I have stopped going out to the club, because that was where I felt the most temptation. Now that my children are growing up, I don’t want someone to say to them, ‘oh I saw your mother drunk and with someone,’ I have decided to be alone. It is better that I dedicate myself to support the community.”