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 Thursday 04 June 2009
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ETHIOPIA: 'Community conversations' opening up the AIDS discussion

Photo: Lea Westerhoff/IRIN
Conversations are bringing people living with HIV back into the community
ADDIS ABABA, 12 July 2007 (PlusNews) - A programme known as 'community conversations' (CC) is making traditionally conservative Ethiopians open up and face the realities of HIV, including the need to treat people affected by the pandemic with greater respect and acceptance.

The project began in 2004 in southern Ethiopia as an initiative of the UN Development Programme and Kembatti Mentti Gezzimma-Tope, a local non-governmental organisation, and has grown to cover most regions in Ethiopia. It is intended to help change societal perceptions of issues such as female genital mutilation, HIV/AIDS, contraception and gender inequality.

"It is the right method to open up dialogue and provoke discussions on issues and concerns about which individuals, families and communities are not usually at ease because of the culture of silence and fear, and also the stigma and discrimination attached to these issues," Ato Berhanu Legesse, a CC expert, told IRIN/PlusNews.

During CC sessions, participants are encouraged to openly discuss and share their experiences, including traditionally taboo issues. In the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, *Beletech Zelalem, told IRIN/PlusNews how CC had enabled her to offload the burden of a brutal sexual attack she had suffered a few years ago.

"It was a bit late and I was few minutes away from my house when a stranger grabbed me from behind, pulled me to the side and raped me," Beletech said. She kept this secret for years, even from her husband, but lived with the constant fear that her rapist might have infected her with HIV, and she could have given it to her husband.

"During one session of CC, in the presence of my husband, I revealed my secret to everyone," she added. "To my surprise, my husband took it positively and we got tested, and now we are relieved to know that we are HIV-negative."

One of the most significant contributions of CC is the change in people's attitudes to members of the community affected by AIDS. Stigma is so widespread in some parts of the country that relatives of people who died from AIDS are forced to bury their dead without the support of the community or even religious leaders.

*Debritu Kebede suffered stigma and discrimination after her husband died from an AIDS-related illness. Although she never told her neighbours about her status, her sudden weight loss tipped them off and they ostracised her.

"I was tired of the hatred and insults inflicted on me, and even once lost my temper and wounded one of my neighbours with a heavy stick," Debritu said.

She eventually received counselling and was recruited as a CC facilitator. "Now I am living positively with the virus ... and I share my experiences and teach my neighbours; they have developed sympathy and care for me and my children."

According to Ato Berhanu, community conversations are a homegrown way of dealing with issues. "In an African country like Ethiopia, where there is a well-established and accepted culture of sitting together and sorting out problems through traditional means, rather than formal and institutional approaches, methodologies like CC are the ones that should be promoted and supported."

The Ethiopian government has identified CC as a key tool in the Social Mobilisation Strategy on HIV/AIDS, and plans to roll it out nationally.


*Names have been changed

Theme(s): (PLUSNEWS) HIV/AIDS (PlusNews)


[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
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