HIV/AIDS: Stigma Kills

Site Visit 9: Education Fights AIDS (Maroua, Cameroon)

It is often said that in reality, it is not HIV/AIDS that kills—it is stigma that does. It is because of stigma that people are afraid to get tested, ashamed to admit their status or to seek treatment, and embarrassed to even talk about the realities of the epidemic. Stigma isolates people, strangles discussion and spreads the virus. The dream of Education Fights AIDS (EFA) is for “the idea of stigmatization to be completely erased.”

EFA was founded by Drew, a Peace Corps volunteer and two Cameroonians named Alim and Adama. Their goal is to empower youth aged 15-35 who are affected by HIV/AIDS by helping them to create associations. Each one is unique and has their own activities, but they all share three primary goals: empowerment, education and enterprise. These associations are given technical assistance, training and some funding by EFA, but ultimately they want them to be completely autonomous and independent entities. EFA also runs a peer education program, in which they train members of the associations to go back into their communities to “sensibilize” people—which means to educate them in order to remove the stigmatization and discrimination that surrounds HIV/AIDS.

Above: Albert Jumbo (Left), Sali Aïssatou (Center), and Hamidou Djïjuï (right). Hamidou talked about how he had no friends after he found out about his HIV-positive status. Now, he is the president of the associations’ Coordination Committee.

EFA is a model example of an organization that responds directly to the needs of the people they serve. The first association was already being formed when they asked for Drew’s help, and EFA was only formed because of the need for a legal entity when donations started coming in from friends and family. EFA’s mission is to support and serve the needs of the associations as the communities see fit—they listen, then act, and that is what has made them so successful.

Each peer educator we met were passionate about their personal transformations and about their work. Each individual had a unique story, but they all had a common thread: thanks to EFA and to the associations, they were transformed from a lost, humiliated and hopeless person to a confident and passionate advocate who is respected in their communities.

In these associations, HIV-affected youth find a second family and a newfound purpose in life. Youth who were once kicked out of their homes after finding out their HIV status were now invited back as favored children after proving that they could be productive members of society, thanks to their associations’ income-generating activities. Now, parents approach EFA directly, asking them to help their HIV-positive children—something that was entirely unheard of just a few years ago.

Before, I could not even look at myself in the mirror. Now, I am not afraid to present myself, and I tell my story with my face uncovered. – Sali Aïssatou (watch her video here)

Sali did not have a choice when she was married off at the age of 13. She found out she was HIV+ a year after her husband died of AIDS. At the time, she didn’t know much about HIV—she was taught about it in school but she thought that it was “only for prostitutes, and that married couples were spared.” This is exactly the kind of stigmatization that she now fights against. She is currently the president of her local association and is determined to allow her daughters to marry who they want, when they want—no matter the social pressures.

Above: Thérèse Pehlem 

Thérèse Pehlem, 32, has been a member of her association since 2006. She described her feelings when she found out she was HIV-positive: I had no hope, I was alone, I was stuck, I was lost. I told myself that life was over. Now, she is not only a peer educator, but a trainer of peer educators: I used to be scared, but now, put me in front of a church, a crowd, a whole community! They ask me left and right to talk about my experiences! When I asked her if she could say something in a video (above), she leaped at the request, ready to talk, and it was clear that this was where she excelled and shined—speaking about HIV to teach others.

Albert Jumbo, 36 years old, has been a member for 5 years (watch his video here). Having lost his wife to AIDS just a year ago, he raises four young children on his own. When he first found out he was HIV+, he told himself that he would just sell all his things, and live the rest of his life in isolation and idleness: I didn’t care about associations, and I didn’t even want to be near these people… but now I’m a peer educator, and I’m not even scared of sensibilizing a whole church congregation!

It was truly inspiring to hear about the personal transformations of the individuals we met, and they were so vibrant and passionate that it was almost hard to believe that they had once lost all hope. Amazingly, not a single member of all of EFA’s associations has passed away in the past two years—a testament to the life-changing effects of EFA’s associations.

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How you can help: Donate to their project called “Providing HIV Services to 1,000 Cameroonian Youth”!

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