Brigette Michel – Mauritius

Brigette Michel – Mauritius

Date: May 29, 2012
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I work for an organization called AILES in Port Louis. We are a community based association in an area where there have been many HIV deaths. Unlikely most of the rest of the continent, HIV is generally spread through injectable drug use; people are affected by using dirty needles. For most of the last decade, this problem has been getting progressively worse. It is in acknowledgement of this that our organization was founded.

We are a small office, but we are managing to do things to help people change, and touch their lives. We work with HIV positive people doing home visits and hospital visits. We also work with drug users, getting them into treatment centers, and making sure they have support in terms of financing, administration, etc. Many of these people don’t have ID cards, so they can’t access available services; we try to help them with things like that, and support them financially at least until they complete treatment.

It’s been two years now that we’ve collaborated with Gender Links, because gender is such an essential element of the work we do. We have been doing campaigns and trying to raise awareness about violence, and gender based violence particularly. Discrimination and stigma are a problem with HIV positive individuals, and this compounds gender based discrimination.

We find so many discriminatory practices, for example, particularly in hospitals, where people are especially in need of comfort and support. Instead of receiving this, they’re stigmatized. There’s a lot to do on this. We find cases where doctors just decide to change a course of medication, but without consultation, or discussing the implication of these changes. We have been writing letters to the minister, and seeing how we can bring people together to work collectively on these issues.

Getting the government to take action and change is very difficult, and it has really made me aware that change is up to us. One of the best things Gender Links has brought us is connections to other organizations who are making the change happen in their own contexts. For example, the approach of LoveLife has been very inspiring to us, and we are now looking at how we can incorporate some of their approaches into our work. It’s great that they genuinely work with young people, using the same language, and speak to them as equals. This is something youth can identify with. We are looking at using these things, like flash mobs, drama, and team building among youth to build respect between boys and girls. When that happens, at the end of the day, our message will reach people, and young people will take more responsible decisions with their lives. There is a place for high level, technical work, but we need a different approach to meet young people, and to make a difference in their lives.

There are a range of challenges we face in our work, and we have to be very conscientious about the way we approach things. For example, the board of our organization is composed of ex drug users, who have been sober for four years. It includes people who are HIV positive, and people who really have experience in peer training, and who know the community we work in. In terms of employees, when people join the organization, they are often people who don’t have any background in formal employment. This is a great advantage for us, but is also a challenge, because sometimes it takes training, and coordination, and we don’t always have the capacity, since most of us work as volunteers. Sometimes we doubt our own judgement, and wonder how we can trust people with our accounts, who have been in prison for stealing money to buy drugs.

We’ve worked for three years now, and already have 400 beneficiaries. We work with children, women, and men, and I think this really counts for something. At the moment, we work mostly in the capital, and that’s a gap. We want to expand, but it’s difficult to access funds, particularly when you are a small organization. It can be difficult, and feel like all the work we do is never enough.

Even though it’s easy to get discouraged, there are also things that we’ve done that I am really proud of. For example, there is a woman who now works in our office. She was injecting drugs for more than 20 years. She’s HIV positive, has been in prison, worked as a sex worker; she has had a very difficult past. She has turned around 180 degrees, and has been clean for 6 months. In this time, she has become trustworthy enough that we make her responsible for a lot in our office. She goes on hospital visits, and makes sure patients are in time for appointments. She makes purchases for the office, and brings receipts when she comes. We can rely on her to show up at work on time. These sound like little things, but they give such meaning to our work. I know that every day, she goes through a lot, and she is doing really well. When she is winning this battle every day, it means that we are also winning ours.

It’s so easy to give up on people, when they use drugs, or when they’re HIV positive. You don’t think they’ll make it. But each day, we need to have the courage not to give up, and to make sure everyone has a chance. Connecting to Gender Links, especially at the summit, really encourages us in this work. The acknowledgement of the value of our work is really important, and connecting to other organizations who understand our difficulties, and have their own approaches to dealing with their own situations is invaluable.




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