'It takes a caring heart, perseverance and a lot of education to overcome stigma.'
Teclah Ponde's work supporting some of the world's most marginalised people living with HIV and AIDS to access treatment and overcome stigma has been inspirational. We asked Teclah to tell us what motivates her and to share her own personal message for World AIDS Day 2014. Here's what Teclah told us:
Q: What motivates you to work to raise awareness about HIV and AIDS?
A: I had a friend who died of an AIDS related illness. She was very dear to me and at the time I did not know much about HIV. When I eventually learnt about it, I felt that by raising awareness many people would not have to lose their loved ones and the quality of life for people living with HIV could be enhanced simply through sharing knowledge and information.
I have seen that the information I give people does transform lives and that the extra day, year or years lived by someone living with HIV has brought joy to their families. I always look back on the work I have done and it brings me great joy and satisfaction because I contribute to giving meaning to life and that gives me the energy and strength I need to go on.
Q: Can you tell us about your experiences of helping people to overcome the stigma and discrimination surrounding HIV?
A: I have learnt that discrimination and stigma come from a lack of knowledge and inadequate information. It comes from the way HIV was and is perceived in communities as a disease associated with loose morality. I have spent a lot of time educating people in the community where I live, in churches, in prisons and even in my car as I drive around.
I have offered one to one counselling sessions with people living with HIV supporting them to accept their status, find joy and relief in sharing their status within safe environments, such as the support groups I've formed. Support groups provide support for people to gain strength from sharing and equip people to overcome discrimination. Those who take part are encouraged to educate their own families and communities that HIV is a manageable condition.
Q: You have a huge heart for people in prisons. What do you love about working with inmates?
A: Inmates are a vulnerable population and a high risk group which many people find hard to work with. As such, they become marginalised. It is unfortunate that inmates are viewed as a homogenous group. Very few people take the time to see them as individual persons with fears, apprehensions, insecurities, battling with acceptance and rejection issues and lacking in hope.
In prisons there are women, children, juveniles, old people, disabled people, foreigners who cannot speak our language. There are teachers, accountants, people who can read, people who cannot. You name it they are all there, the innocent as well as the guilty and including those who are sick or chronically ill. They are all there.
The prison environment is not a natural one and so many first time offenders find it hard to cope. When you reach out on these issues at an individual level, you find the keys to assistance in unlocking someone's destiny. My work ceases to be just an HIV and AIDS programme, it becomes a personal health issue. It becomes a survival strategy, a way out and a new lifestyle. It is about realigning one's personal goals for the future and brings a smile in an environment where it can be really hard to smile. When you become a witness of this transformation process, you kneel down in the evening and thank God that you have been an instrument for bringing joy and hope back into people's lives.
Hearing the testimonies of armed robbers, rapists, thieves - because these are often people I work with - and facilitating their reintegration back into their families and communities and being part of the victim-offender mediation process is mind-blowing. You just want to have the experience again and again. But despite these wonderful experiences, there are also people who are harder to reach, who are not prepared to change, who just look at you and dismiss you as someone who has nothing better to do. This doesn't affect me too much because at least I know I have tried.
I consider it a privilege to be able to access prisons. I also see it as an opportunity which God has given me to reach out and provide avenues for new beginnings and another chance to live a different lifestyle. I do not have all the answers, but for some people the information I have given them has helped them to look inside themselves and think about how they can turn over a new leaf and live as honourable and responsible citizens.
Q: In what ways do the inmates you've worked with overcome the additional stigma of being in prison?
A: During our training programmes, we talk about how their offending behaviour has affected other people so that they can begin to understand how other people perceive them. These discussions often help inmates to realise the impact of their behaviour and so they also begin to understand the negative attitudes they generally receive from their families and communities. It is really important that offenders take time to reflect on how their behaviour has impacted on others and to appreciate that their past actions cannot be reversed, for example if they have murdered, raped or maimed someone.
The sessions also deal with how inmates can be an agent for dealing with the stigma they will inevitably face. One of the things we advocate for is acceptance that they have offended and for them to begin to demonstrate changed behaviour. It takes time and effort to convince people that you have changed and that now tolerance and effort is required of them.
Q: How can people's attitudes and behaviour towards people living with HIV change?
A: We have been training and raising awareness on HIV and AIDS for more than a decade now. I think it's time for people living with HIV to take a bold stance with issues of disclosure. Once people are open about living with HIV and no longer need to conceal their identity, people will start to accept that it is a condition like any other chronic illness. This is the direction we ought to take. Of course we also need to continue to educate and provide information to reduce new infections as well.
Q: People affected by the serious outbreak of Ebola in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia are also currently experiencing levels of discrimination and stigma. What would your advice be to them and to those handling the crisis to help overcome this stigma?
A: It takes a caring heart, perseverance and a lot of education and effort to overcome stigma. Let us educate our communities, work together and coordinate efforts. Let's look for help where we cannot do it on our own. Nothing is impossible to him who has the will to overcome.
Q: What is your message for World AIDS Day 2014?
A: Let's make Anti-Retroviral treatment available, accessible and cost effective for all. Let's make efforts to reduce new infections and make high risk populations a priority for interventions.