Making a difference: Jamaica

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Feature story

Making a difference: Jamaica

14 March 2008

Miriam Maluwa, UNAIDS Country Coordinator for Jamaica, The Bahamas and Cuba, speaking at the launch of a Disability and HIV Programme in Jamaica, 3 December 2007
Credit: UNAIDS

“There are never enough hours in the day,” says Miriam Maluwa, Jamaica, the Bahamas & Cuba UNAIDS Country Coordinator. “The one thing I have learnt is that as country coordinator you have got to be responsive to the needs of the county. Like a constant half moon—there’s always the half you see and the other half that you can’t yet see, but you know is to come. And you need to be ready and responsive.”

Maluwa, who trained and practiced as a lawyer with experience of AIDS legal and human rights issues, joined UNAIDS headquarters ten years ago to head a unit on Law, Human Rights and HIV. In 2004 she was given the challenge of starting the new office for Jamaica, Cuba and the Bahamas, based in Kingston, Jamaica. “It’s not a job,” she says, “this is a personal mission. I see UNAIDS as a channel to fulfil that mission and I completely believe that I should be part of this.”

Leadership and advocacy

Alongside the unpredictable day-to-day demands and coordinating role, the office in Jamaica has a full agenda that is guided by the five UNAIDS strategic functions. Leadership and advocacy for the AIDS response has been an important one of these, and to date there have been many successes in this area. UNAIDS and its Cosponsors have put energy into moving the response beyond the health sector. As a result of this collaboration with the Government, in Jamaica there are now eight government ministries with policies and programmes for HIV.

UNAIDS Office and Cosponsors have also supported the government in the development of the Jamaica Strategic Plan for 2007- 2012, which is before the cabinet for endorsement. This $201 million plan has an integral Monitoring and Evaluation framework with embedded indicators and targets for its goal: “the achievement of universal access to prevention, treatment and care”.

Maluwa is very encouraged by the enthusiasm for the new plan. “It is so accepted that when the Prime Minister spoke at the last World AIDS Day breakfast Meeting he actually referred to the plan,” she said. “He spoke about its contents. He had no notes and he was speaking off the cuff. It was a good feeling.”

Jamaica's first ever private sector led Business Council on HIV and AIDS with 20 large companies was established in 2006.

One challenge in Jamaica is that few people know their HIV status or believe that they are at personal risk. An estimated three quarters of the some 25,000 people living with HIV in the country have not been diagnosed. The Prime Minister and his wife have drawn attention to this issue by taking HIV tests in public. During the 2007 official World AIDS Day event, which UNAIDS helped to organise, Voluntary Counselling and Testing facilities were provided and over 1000 people came forward for the service. 

Miriam Maluwa, UNAIDS Country Coordinator for Jamaica, The Bahamas and Cuba speaking at a Prime Minister's World AIDS Day 2007 'Leadership for Life' breakfast meeting
Credit: UNAIDS

Legal reform

On the invitation of the authorities, UNAIDS Office has also played an active role in the process of HIV related legal reform. With her legal expertise Maluwa was able to support an extensive assessment of existing legislation and draw up reform proposals which have been submitted to Cabinet and discussed with the Parliamentary Joint Select Committee.
A series of reforms are being recommended including enactment of an anti Discrimination provision in the Jamaica Constitution prohibiting discrimination based on all status; amending the Public Health Act and enacting a comprehensive stand alone Anti Discrimination Act with mechanism to investigate and redress discriminatory actions and amending the Criminal Offences Act to decriminalize homosexuality.

 “A lot of the value that Governments place on UNAIDS is on the technical support and our ability to provide strategic support at critical times,” says Maluwa.

Strengthening partnerships

The UNAIDS office also works to strengthen partnerships and support civil society. It has supported the development of a mini-TV series that will be broadcast in 2008. Called Red Ribbon Diaries, the series documents the lives of ordinary young Jamaicans affected by HIV. UNAIDS has also partnered with the Jamaica Council of Persons with Disabilities to implement an Island-wide prevention programme to educate deaf women and girls, and their service providers about HIV.

The Jamaican Network of Sero-positives (JN+) is supported through the provision of office space for its Board of Directors and UNAIDS also technically supports the network’s Island-wide capacity building workshops for people living with HIV and has served as Elections Returning Officer at the recently held elections of new JN+ Board.

Resource mobilisation

An achievement which Maluwa is particularly proud is UNAIDS Jamaica’s  role in Chairing the Oversight Monitoring Committee of the Country Coordinating Mechanism which is implementing a model plan for resolving potential conflicts of interest between Principle Recipients and sub-recipients of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria.
This is part and parcel of the technical support to the Jamaican government, but has international relevance. “It is an innovative contribution to resource mobilisation. The Global Fund is currently publishing the Jamaica model as a Best Practice,” she said.

Personal fulfilment

Looking to the future, Miriam Maluwa sees the subsisting deep-seated culture of stigma, discrimination and homophobia as one of the main challenges to the Jamaica AIDS response.

However, important work is underway. The National AIDS Committee, in collaboration with UNAIDS Jamaica and the legal fraternity has secured free legal services from 25 lawyers to address matters of discrimination for people living with HIV and other key populations. These lawyers also support human rights workshops for the general public, media, religious leaders, people living with HIV and civil society to enhance a culture of tolerance.

 “This work is personally rewarding,” says Maluwa, “because in the field you are not pushing paper, you are dealing with real issues every day. Each issue that comes to you, you are managing either the person before you or the relationship between that person and other partners you are trying to coordinate, so that everybody comes together over an issue. I find that very fulfilling because I can count on my fingers the difference that I am making every day.”

Her four years in the country office has given her new insights into UNAIDS. “The life of UNAIDS is really at country level,” she says. “It’s the best way for UNAIDS to showcase its work. Either we are there or we are irrelevant. I think the country offices bring credibility to UNAIDS, because they are what people see. We need to put our money and our efforts there.”