Feature story

ILO: Action against stigma brings hope to Ethiopia’s agricultural cooperatives

14 April 2009

Ajama Kalacha gets ready to plough his field. His community’s support has made it easier for him to cope with HIV Credit: ILO

Ajama Kalacha works hard on his small agricultural plot in Ethiopia’s highlands to provide an income for the extended family he supports. Even though life is tough, Ajama is an optimist - his community treats him well and he believes his prospects for making a living from the land are good. But he was not always so confident.

Seven years ago, Ajama discovered that he had become infected with HIV. At the time stigma and discrimination were widespread in his community and the diagnosis led him to despair. Today Ajama is taking antiretroviral treatment and his health is stable. He has told everyone about his HIV status, and his children and extended family have not been excluded from school or community life as he had once feared.

“My message to others is that living positively with HIV helps you to work harder and leads to a new lifestyle,” he says. “The care and support that I have received has made it much easier for me to cope with my illness.”

This dramatic change in Ajama’s attitude and circumstances came about in 2004 when his agricultural cooperative society in West Oromia State became part of a wider programme to reduce the negative effects of HIV. Funded by the Italian government in cooperation with the International Labour Organization (ILO), the programme works through the Oromia region agricultural cooperative unions that have members in over 200 agricultural primary societies and 14 transport associations.

To ensure that interventions were at the right level, staff carried out an initial study of HIV knowledge and attitudes, which revealed many misunderstandings. For instance, 51 per cent of those interviewed thought HIV could be transmitted by mosquito bites, 17 per cent by sharing a toilet and 6 per cent by working with an HIV-positive person.

The programme has strong support from government and the national cooperative leadership. It works through a range of training approaches, firstly raising awareness of HIV among leaders and then, through specific workshops, training a network of master trainers and peer educators. They in turn roll out the programme at community level, helping to challenge discrimination, change behaviour which may risk exposure to HIV, and set up care and support services for members and their families.

Easily identified by their bags and T-shirts that both bear the slogan, ‘HIV does not discriminate, but people do,’ the peer educators work with the whole community visiting homes, speaking at local gatherings and involving key individuals such as religious leaders. They use an HIV manual and distribute popular information materials that have been translated into the local languages of Afaan Oromo and Amharic. They also help to provide care and support services including treatment.

In Ajama’s cooperative, misunderstandings about HIV, together with the stigma and discrimination directed against those affected, have gradually reduced as a result of this steady work. The positive environment and encouragement he has received gave Ajama the courage to speak out about his status and to have hope for the future.

“I set my mind to starting a new life,” he says. “The care and support for people living with HIV and AIDS has helped greatly to reduce its impact on our lives.”