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Change begins at home

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Standing confidently in the middle of the room, Doan Thi Khuyen starts up the regular meeting with a fun drawing game. The topic for today’s meeting will be Reproductive Health and HIV prevention. The gathering, filling out the small room with over twenty participants from the Red Flaming Group at Kien An district in Hai Phong, is regularly interrupted with peals of laughter. This exercise helps to make everyone feel relaxed, and prepares them for the openness required in the upcoming discussion – a subject which is not at all easy to address.

“So, who can tell me what we mean by reproductive health? And why it is easier for women to get infected with HIV through sex than men?”

A few hands are timidly raised, and a variety of suggestions begin to mould a comprehensive answer to this crucial question. There are vocal disagreements, noisy opinions, and knowing consent. Everyone gets their chance to speak.

Once a month, Khuyen’s small house becomes the meeting venue for the self-help group in the village. Members of the group, who are mostly women, gather together like this to share experiences about HIV related issues, such as prevention, health care and treatment, or to plan HIV prevention communication activities in their community or schools. In addition to this, Khuyen and other friends in the Red Flaming Group also help refer people to HIV voluntary counseling and testing centers, take care of weak HIV patients at home or in hospital, and support PLHIV in income generating activities.

A few years ago, Khuyen contracted HIV from her husband, who was a drug user. After he died, she bought land in the village and now takes care of her HIV positive small son herself. This sad chapter of Khuyen’s life ended however when she was advised by the precinct health center to come and meet the national UNV volunteers at the GIPA project in Hai Phong.  Thanks to her experiences, the 28 year old widower has become more confident and as she says: “I have gained more understanding of HIV and now I am not only able to help myself but others as well.”

Since 2006, Khuyen has been part of GIPA, participating in project activities, and receiving training on HIV, project management for income generating activities, health care, and communication. Although once she sat as a trainee in the GIPA project, in meetings like today’s, now she stands proudly in a new role – a trainer and a counselor. In fact, she has become one of twelve community volunteers in the GIPA project in Hai Phong.

“Villagers are no longer afraid of us because they understand more about HIV than before and they also see us living positively and doing good things. They realize we are normal like them and now they even help us to organize HIV prevention communication activities in the area”, Khuyen shares.

Another small house behind the meeting room is the tailoring workshop which Khuyen has set up for other women in a similar situation as her. This kind of workplace is a suitable model for PLHIV, as tailors can rest when they feel tired. Moreover, they do not have to work long hours like it is in normal commercial factories. From five sewing machines at the beginning, now the number is twelve. Khuyen says: “GIPA has helped connect us to donors to equip more machines for the workshop and introduce us to clients. We often get contracts to make uniforms for schools and companies so it helps us earn enough for living.”

Since 2006, Hai Phong has been one of four project sites of the “Promoting Greater Involvement of People Living with HIV/AIDS (GIPA)” project, implemented by the Viet Nam Women’s Union with technical support from UNV and UNAIDS. After nearly four years, one of the most successful features of the project has been the mobilization of voluntary participation, not only in the network of the project but also in the community. Stigma and discrimination have been greatly reduced. GIPA has linked up self-help groups to make a united network that provides a forum for frequent and useful information exchange. This also helps groups support each other better in building capacity for all members.

Khuyen is only one example among many other community volunteers and people who have found that GIPA is making a real difference in their lives, thoughts and knowledge. GIPA, indeed, has brought them the support, sympathy, and the strength so that they can overcome their sorrows and misfortunes, live more positively, and help themselves and others.

- By Luu Thi Ngoc Anh

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