Michael Johansson is former head of CRS' Smart and Safe HIV awareness program in East Timor, a small island nation near Australia. In June 2010, he described how the program has helped thousands of Timorese, including at-risk groups, learn how to prevent HIV transmission.
- Laura Sheahen:
- Do people in East Timor know a lot about HIV?
- Michael Johansson:
It's geographically difficult to get places, so communities become isolated. The problem here is lack of information about HIV. They get very little from school or radio or TV.
The knowledge level about HIV is so low. When we started passing out health leaflets people thought we were lobbying for political campaigns, for votes. Usually leaflets in East Timor are about politics.
- Who is at risk?
Our program puts a special focus on men, particularly those who travel and are away from their wives a lot. We contact truck, taxi and other drivers via peer educators. They identify people in their circle of friends who need to know about sexually transmitted infections.
We met with 8,000 men in the first 18 months of the program, talking to them, learning about their lives, and in many cases encouraging them to get tested for HIV.
- What message are you trying to get across?
We're a Catholic agency, so our message is: "Be faithful. Stay with your wife." The focus is to get that man to stop having sex outside marriage because he's putting himself and his wife at risk. Our peer educators try to find out what the real reason is—are there marital problems?
Our peer educators have to build trust with the man to encourage him to get tested for HIV.
We also reach out to communities.
- How does that work? How do you know where the need is?
For example, there's a traveling night market. They sell everything—vegetables, motorbikes, livestock, everything. Prostitutes travel along with the night market.
So we meet with leaders in the place the market is headed next, and ask to give a presentation on sexually transmitted infections. The town leader often says "Can you talk to our young men?" That leader—sometimes a village chief—helps us identify where and when to do the health fairs. There are talks, dramas about HIV, Q and A sessions, sport events, radio shows, and so on. We even had songs written for the fairs. The lyrics encourage people to think about how their actions will affect their loved ones and their own health.
By the end of the year, CRS will have held 14 health fairs. The health fairs are always in communities with at least 400 people, so we've reached thousands of people since the program began in 2008.
We also give trainings at high schools, police centers and women's groups. With young people, we recruit the most obvious leaders, start a peer network. We encourage young people to abstain from sex outside of marriage and then to be faithful within marriage. We also refer people to be tested for HIV.
We are currently designing new leaflets that will be distributed through Catholic Church youth centers, and we plan to start using multimedia to a larger extent, as more and more people get access to radio and TV.
- What's the most difficult part of your work?
- In the beginning, the most difficult thing was to convince
people to get tested even when they feel okay. We've overcome that. In December
2009, as part of a World AIDS Day event we planned, a local government leader agreed to be tested.
With the peer educators and the trainings, there's a snowballing effect. More and more people here are learning about HIV and how to prevent its spread.
Listen to a song played at HIV awareness health fairs in East Timor.
Go back home, your family is waiting for you.
Go back home, your friends are waiting for you.
You have to love your life because your life is important to your family and your friends.
No one can stay alone.
Laura Sheahen is CRS regional information officer for Asia. She is based in Cambodia.