HIV/AIDS anti-stigma drive making waves in Linden By Cathy Wilson
Stabroek News
October 1, 2003

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The national HIV/AIDS anti-stigma and anti-discrimination initiative is making waves in the town of Linden. And the Linden Care Foundation has formed a corps of 20 mini-bus drivers and conductors who have been educated on HIV/AIDS- related issues.

These mini-bus operators, since the awareness drive was launched at Bamia Creek on the Linden-Soesdyke High-way, have been hammering home a number of messages on HIV/AIDS issues to their passengers by distributing information brochures and playing relevant CDs and cassettes.

Recently the anti-stigma and anti-discrimination campaign was launched among minibus operators in the mining town and they have since been mounting campaign posters as well as plugging relevant discussions with passengers, who are mainly youths.

The first phase of the USAID-sponsored project which was recently launched features a mass-media campaign entitled “Words Have Power” and aims to mobilise mini-bus drivers and conductors to improve their personal attitudes and behaviour towards persons living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHAs). The operators are expected to become role models for their passengers as they display respectful behaviour towards PLWHAs.

Working specifically with mini-bus drivers and conductors through the Guyana HIV/AIDS/STI youth project are the Guyana Responsible Parenthood Association (GRPA) operating out of Georgetown, the Linden Care Foundation (LCF) of Region Ten and Comforting Hearts of Berbice.

Minibus culture

Minibus operators are believed to exert a strong influence on many Guyanese youths, so the project chose the mini-bus ‘culture’ for the development of a campaign to reduce the HIV/AIDS stigma and discrimination.

Meanwhile, Comforting Hearts launched their campaign last week and like GRPA and LCF, they too organised a corps of operators to disseminate information on various HIV/AIDS issues. The launching featured a road relay and rally among over 350 students drawn from seven secondaries and one primary school in Berbice.

Six other NGOs - Youth Challenge Guyana, the Network of Guyanese Living with HIV/AIDS (G+), the Volunteer Youth Corps (VYC), Hope Foundation (Bartica), Artistes in Direct Support, and Lifeline Counselling Services - are conducing a number of project activities to promote the “Words Have Power” campaign.

The stigma and discrimination against PLWHAs prevent crucial behaviour change from happening, according to USAID project-monitor Bill Slater. By preventing people from seeking information and discussing HIV/AIDS, stigma and discrimination create an ‘us vs. them’ mentality, in which individuals refuse to assess their real risk of HIV transmission and get tested. It drives PLWHAs into the shadows of society where they fail to get care and support, he noted.

Words have power

The ‘Words Have Power’ theme was developed from an assessment by the Behaviour Change Communication (BCC) team, after intensive pre-testing. This three-month drive intends to promote changes in the attitudes, knowledge, language and behaviour that stigmatise and discriminate against PLWHAs in the so-called mini-bus environment.

This theme incorporates the notion that language can have a powerful impact on people’s lives.

The key messages ‘Give respect! Get respect!’ ‘Big up people living with HIVAIDS’ promote the reduction of stigma and discrimination in words valued and understood by the target audiences. ‘Big up people living with HIV/AIDS’ is a call to target audiences to do something supportive, caring and positive for PLWHAs.

The essence of the strategy is based on respect as a key benefit for not stigmatising and discriminating, bringing persons to the point of realisation that ‘if I give respect and support to PLWHAs, I will get respect in return.’

The campaign aims to promote good behaviour models, talks on attitudes towards PLWHAs by operators in front of their passengers, and increase awareness and knowledge of how one can and can’t get the HIV virus. It also seeks to improve the nature of conversations about HIV/AIDS and PLWHAs in the mini-bus environment.

The campaign is to be linked to a wide range of community-based activities, including theatre, walk-a-thons, and concerts. To bring the curtains down on the campaign, there would be a collaborative World AIDS Day event on December 1 in Georgetown.