We have just passed the half-way point of our GROW internship here in Mumias, Kenya—and yet I am still being blown away every day by WOPLAH’s inspiring work within this community. WOPLAH’s mission to address the pain and suffering of orphans, vulnerable children, and people living with HIV/AIDS in Western Kenya tackles the most prevalent health issue in their country. According to the UNAIDS World AIDS Day Report 2012 an estimated 1.6 million Kenyans are living with HIV, around 1.1 million children have been orphaned by AIDS, and in 2011 nearly 62,000 people died from AIDS-related illnesses.
After seeing such powerful numbers, I couldn’t help but wonder why the HIV/AIDS epidemic is still so prevalent and I wanted to dive deeper into how WOPLAH is helping to eradicate this disease.
Shortly after the HIV/AIDS emerged in the early 1980’s, Jonathan Mann—the founding Director of the World Health Organization’s former Global Programme on AIDS—framed the HIV and AIDS epidemic in three phases: the HIV infection epidemic, the AIDS epidemic, and the epidemic of social, cultural, economic, and political responses to HIV/AIDS. Unfortunately, over the course of history societal norms have marginalized our perception of the disease and the people afflicted with it. Although I was familiar with America’s negative associations with HIV/AIDS, the GROW team and I thought it would be a good idea to ask our program coordinator Edwin about Kenya’s HIV/AIDS associations. It was interesting to find that the negative associations prevalent in America and Kenya are fairly parallel, with stereotypes such as: homosexuality, prostitution, commercial sex, drug usage, and not being faithful. However I was surprised when Edwin told us that whole tribes, communities, and clan cultures have their own stigmas and stereotypes that affect their status in society and can interact (either for better or worse) with the connotations of HIV/AIDS. Many individuals in Kenya face heavy discrimination due to the negative attitudes, or stigma, related to HIV/AIDS. The stigma around HIV/AIDS is embedded in societal structures (social, cultural, economic, and political) and it is crucial to consider these factors when addressing the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Kenya.
WOPLAH was founded in 2008 by eleven individual community members—who became known as the Ambassadors of Hope (AOH)—that saw the need to reduce stigma for people living with HIV/AIDS and their families through support groups, income generating activities (IGAs), community health dialogues, and other WOPLAH programs. These initiatives address individual, relational, and societal stigmas recognizing the importance of all three. Tackling HIV/AIDS-related stigma from multiple levels allows WOPLAH to use different social, cultural, economic, and political avenues in their programs.
· Empower positive individuals on how to live positively through education
· Give discriminated individuals a sense of community and belonging
Income Generating Activities-
· Empowers beneficiaries to take ownership of their IGAs by providing training
· Enables beneficiaries to gain an income (for medications, food, etc.)
· Provides nutrition for health and deters ARV defaulting
Community Health Dialogues-
· Gives community members a voice in their community about health issues
· Brings together community leaders, health workers, and local administration to make solutions to health issues
I feel as if I have only scratched the surface of how WOPLAH is impacting their community and helping to eradicate this disease. This grassroots organization has connected with companies, organizations, government support, and key local actors to create a movement towards health equity. And I assure you that this wonderful organization filled with dedicated and passionate people will stop at nothing to reach their vision.
-Desi Hartman (Psychology Major, Global Health Minor, Colorado College Class of 2016)