Feature story

UNDP engages Namibian communities in conversation on sexuality and HIV

01 February 2010

A version of this story was first published at www.undp.org

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Community conversations have proven to be an effective way to combat HIV in Namibia.
Credit: UNDP Namibia

What causes people to have more than one sexual partner at a time? “Sexual desire and satisfaction”; “It’s a cultural and social norm”; “Poverty and hunger; it’s a way to survive.” These are just some of the perspectives that emerged when communities under four traditional authorities came together to talk about what is known as ‘multiple and concurrent partnerships’ in the Caprivi region, in North East Namibia. This region is the most affected by the HIV epidemic in the country, where one in three pregnant women were found to be living with HIV in 2008.

The community conversations held late in 2009 is one of many taking place in throughout the country as part of a nationwide programme that engages communities in dialogue on the causes of HIV, boosting local responses to the epidemic.

Long ago, marriages were respected. Nowadays, we have left this culture behind and both men and women have multiple sexual partners.

Participant in the UNDP project “Community Capacity Enhancement through Community Conversations.” December, 2009.

The programme is known as ‘Community Capacity Enhancement through Community Conversations’. It is being implemented by the Namibian Ministry of Regional and Local Government, Housing and Rural development, with the support of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Namibia.

Multiple and concurrent partnerships have been identified as one of the main reasons why HIV has spread so rapidly in Namibia. “Long ago, marriages were respected. Nowadays, we have left this culture behind and both men and women have multiple sexual partners”, said one participant.

“By bringing together men, women and all those affected by HIV, this approach gives people the opportunity to make their voices heard, to identify their needs and to be counted when decisions about AIDS interventions are made,” says the Manager of UNDP’s Community Capacity Enhancement Programme, Immanuel Mwilima.

Community Capacity Enhancement through Community Conversations is a tried and tested methodology to boost the capacity of communities to identify concerns, deliberate on solutions and map out courses of action around AIDS.

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Community members working with condoms during a community conversation on MCP in Katima Mulilo, Caprivi region.
Credit: UNDP Namibia

The approach opens up spaces for discussions based on relationships of trust and mutual respect.

According to Mr Henk Van Renterghem, UNAIDS Country Coordinator in Namibia, the community conversations offer a unique opportunity to strengthen the capacity of communities to engage with local government and development partners on the allocation of resources in the AIDS response.

“Too often communities are considered to be the passive recipients or beneficiaries interventions. They are inadequately consulted in top down processes for the identification of needs and priorities,” said Mr van Renterghem.

Too often communities are considered to be the passive recipients or beneficiaries interventions. They are inadequately consulted in top down processes for the identification of needs and priorities.

Mr Henk Van Renterghem, UNAIDS Country Coordinator in Namibia

To date, communities in nine regions are conducting community conversations, with impressive results. In Caprivi, traditional leaders have led by example, going for voluntary counselling and testing and tackling the stigma associated with testing. In the words of one leader: “It is shocking that many of our relatives and loved ones have died because of AIDS....If this programme had come sooner, our relatives would have been alive today.”

Many challenges still remain in the AIDS response, however. For instance, 17.8% of pregnant women are HIV-positive in Namibia. “One of the biggest challenges facing rural communities in relation to accessing treatment, care and support services is stigma, discrimination, cultural norms and practices. Community Capacity Enhancement gives communities an opportunity to have an introspection of their cultural practices, norms and values,” says Lebogang Motlana, the Deputy Resident Representative of UNDP in Namibia. While the country is among the five most affected by HIV around the world, the epidemic is now on a downward trend, at just over 15%, after peaking at 22% in 2002.