For the community, by the community: strengthening effective responses to HIV

For the community, by the community: strengthening effective responses to HIV

HIV Australia | Vol. 12 No. 2 | July 2014

By Inad Rendon

Men who have sex with men (MSM) and transgender (TG) people are two populations disproportionately affected by HIV across Asia and the Pacific.

In recognition of the fact that urgent investment is required to strengthen the capacity of MSM and TG communities and their organisations to participate in HIV responses at the local, national and regional level, Asia Pacific Coalition on Male Sexual Health (APCOM), in partnership with the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations (AFAO), implemented a project entitled the MSM and TG Networks Capacity Strengthening Initiative (MSM and TG Initiative).

The project recognises two key elements that are essential for fostering effective responses to HIV.

The first is the meaningful involvement of communities most affected; the second is effective community-led advocacy driven by a thorough and well-articulated understanding of local HIV epidemics.

There remains a lot of work to be done, particularly at the regional level, to use this evidence to build effective prevention, care and support programs for MSM and TG communities.

This article looks at some of the ways that the MSM and TG Initiative is helping to remove barriers that hinder effective engagement and advocacy among regional, sub-regional and national MSM and TG organisations by providing support and capacity development tools to empower communities to lead effective responses to local and regional HIV epidemics.

Building capacity

Since its inception, Asia Pacific Coalition on Male Sexual Health (APCOM) has been working towards the improved sexual health and services for the community in Asia and the Pacific.

The MSM/TG Initiative aims to support networks and organisations through the provision of technical and advocacy support and assistance to foster coordinated approaches to advocacy and communications among network members.

APCOM visits the office of Islands of South East Asian Networks for MSM and Transgender Health (ISEAN) in Jakarta, Indonesia to catch up with the MSM and TG Networks Capacity Strengthening Initiative.

Under the project, APCOM and AFAO forged partnerships with a range of national, regional and sub-regional networks and organisations, each working to fight HIV epidemics in-country and across the region.

The networks involved are: Youth Voices Count (YVC), Asia Pacific Transgender Network (APTN), Islands of Southeast Asian Network on Male and Transgender Sexual Health (ISEAN), Pacific Sexual Diversity Network (PSDN), Purple Sky Network (PSN), Myanmar MSM Network (MMN), and Viet Community Development Ltd. (VCDL).

The MSM/TG Initiative also promotes collaboration among the networks by creating a mechanism to share information from the region with the sub-region and, ultimately, with the country and community level, and vice versa.

This includes the sharing of information such as policies, guidelines, media releases, and the documentation of successful approaches.

Reporting and communications tools

One of the key elements of this project is the Rapid Assessment Apparatus (‘Rapid App’). This is a reporting tool which assesses the strengths and needs of the networks against eleven essential criteria: governance; finance and administration; staffing; resource mobilisation; partnerships and networking; membership; program design and management; technical capacity; advocacy; communication; and strategic information.

APCOM and AFAO engage each community network in conversations that encourage them to reflect on daily achievements and progress, as well as areas where improvement is needed.

Through this process, APCOM and AFAO can identify any gaps where additional technical and advocacy support for each network may be required, at the same time as areas where additional capacity development is required.

A regional analysis report presenting some of the findings of this work will be published and launched during the 2014 International AIDS Conference.

The report summarises and analyses the common organisational strengths and weaknesses and puts emphasis on which programmatic areas the organisations should focus on.

One of the strengths presented is that the networks have a good representation of key affected populations including MSM and TG people – as both members and board representatives.

One of the needs found was a lack of capacity within the networks to mobilise and apply for the resources that are crucial to accomplish the goals of any advocacy organisation.

A tool that proved extremely useful in assisting network communications is the Dissemination Plan Template (D-Plate), designed to assist the networks, organisations and individual advocates to strategically and effectively communicate information to their partners, target audiences and other stakeholders.

The D-Plate template assists advocates to successfully identify and deliver key messages that are consistent with sub-regional, national or local issues that they wish to address through their organisational work.

Using the D-Plate template, the networks involve members and staff in a discussion to agree on one or more advocacy messages that they wish to pursue.

Being inclusive from the beginning of the process, the dissemination activity promotes cooperation within the network.

Through these discussions a range of strategic decisions are made, such as identifying the most appropriate individuals to deliver particular advocacy messages and designing the best dissemination activity for this specific audience.

Improving access to information

Translating key documents

Another way that APCOM is assisting to build an enabling environment that assists the sub-regional and in-country networks to build capacity and increase the effectiveness of their advocacy initiatives is to make key documents about HIV in the region more accessible by translating them into local community languages.

English is the main language used in cross-country discussions and in the development of high-level policy and research materials on HIV in the region, but it is not the primary language used by most of the countries in Asia and the Pacific.

APCOM partners in Ho Chi Minh City, gladly received their copies of the Vietnamese Version of APCOM Policy Brief titled: South East Asia Legal Environments for MSM and TG and Addressing the Needs of Young Men who have Sex with Men.

To increase access to these key sources of information, a range of documents – including APCOM policy briefs, country snapshots and multi-city reports – were selected by APCOM and AFAO to be translated into 11 different community languages: Burmese; Chinese; Khmer; Lao; Thai and Vietnamese for the Greater Mekong Sub-Region; Bahasa, Cebuano and Tetum for the ISEAN Sub-Region; French and Pidgin for the Pacific Sub-Region.

Myanmar Youth Stars (MYS) is one of the country networks in Myanmar that will disseminate the APCOM Policy Briefs. ‘Hurray! Burmese!’ was the excited remark of recognition from one of the MYS members when the Burmese translated Policy Briefs were delivered to them during the first City-Based Hidden/Positive MSM Consultation in Yangon, Myanmar.

The Headlight series

Knowledge of the relevant issues for HIV testing, prevention, treatment, care and support programs is essential role for development of effective responses in the region, sub-region and in-country.

Apart from translating key documents in full, the project also developed ‘bite-size’ summaries of key materials (Headlight: Bite Size Briefs) to further enhance networks’ and advocates’ understanding about particular subjects to improve their advocacy skills.

The Headlight: Bite Size Brief series presents high-level documents in simplified format, using easy-to-understand language summarising discussions and analysis on issues affecting the rights and health of key affected population across Asia and the Pacific.

Making data and research on local HIV epidemics more accessible creates opportunities for communities to use the evidence-based approaches in their advocacy efforts.

The Bite-Size Briefs form part of APCOM’s ‘Light Series’, which also includes Spotlight (which highlights community organisations and their responses to HIV), Limelight (which features specific individuals and their advocacy work) and Highlight (which profiles advocacy work on a specific issue).

More than partnerships

The success of the project to date is evident in the strong linkages and pathways that have formed among the regional and sub-regional as well as the in-country networks.

By regularly sharing feedback on strategic methodologies and action plans, channels for open and effective communication between network members have been established.

This includes information flow between city-based networks and sub-regional and regional networks, in a process which sees diverse community groups working together.

An example is the Hidden/Positive Consultation in Yangon, Myanmar, where a number of networks of men who have sex with men, gay, lesbian and transgender communities are working together towards evaluating the HIV response of the city, each providing recommendations and filling in knowledge gaps.

It was also an opportunity for the regional networks such as APN+ and YVC to collaborate with their country networks by providing useful information on people living with HIV and young men who have sex with men, and for the consultation formats.

A noticeable effect of this environment of open communication between what can be at times quite disparate community groups, is the improved confidence in dealing with each other. This environment allows for the free exchange of ideas and feedback, and increased level of coordination, towards achieving effective results.

The knowledge transfer from regional to sub-regional and/or regional/subregional to national level improves the capacity of the networks in the areas of policy analysis, advocacy and effective representation.

This facilitates the engagement of the networks in the regional and national responses to HIV. The knowledge and capacity provided are essential elements in effective participation and representation.

Inad Rendon is Advocacy Capacity Development Officer at APCOM.