In countries like St Lucia, populations such as men who have sex with men (MSM) and sex workers are highly stigmatised, and with few organisations which cater specifically for their needs, they are very hard to reach with HIV information and services.
The Caribbean HIV/AIDS Alliance’s (CHAA) Eastern Caribbean Community Action Project II (EC CAP II) is working to change this. The project works through individual community animators, drawn from vulnerable populations, who use a peer outreach approach to give support and guidance to their communities. This can include distributing condoms and information about HIV and referrals to HIV counselling and testing.
Kenita Placide and Adaryl Williams are two such community animators. They are also co-directors of United & Strong (U&S), the only LGBT organisation in St. Lucia. They have been involved with HIV and LGBT rights for fifteen years and have worked on stigma, discrimination and human rights, both nationally and internationally. Their established relationships with key populations are a huge asset for the project, as Kenita puts it, “we are not strangers but people from these same populations”.
Programme Officer Kerry Jules Smith explains, “Kenita and Adaryl have made it easier for members to trust the services and the office staff. They feel freer to access the services and referrals we make available and members are now increasingly opting to have an HIV test”.
In speaking to Kenita, it’s easy to get a sense of her strong desire for key populations to have a voice about projects that affect them. She says that when HIV projects are implemented on the island, they don’t adequately consult key populations. By working as animators with the EC CAP II project, she and Adaryl are ensuring the voices of their communities are being heard and represented and Kenita feels that “a real success has been in bringing people in from most at risk populations to advise and to be a part of the project”.
In a deeply conservative and religious country, establishing the only LGBT organisation in the country was a courageous act. It has not been easy. U&S was established in 1995, but properly operating since 2000. When U&S opened their first office in 2011, it burned to the ground days later. Though it has never been proven whether the fire was accidental or not, it was deeply disturbing. Adaryl says things are not too bad for LGBT in St. Lucia, but he says he is not yet “brave enough” to speak on behalf of the organisation on television. He is worried about how society will react to his involvement and the repercussions for his family.
Participating in the EC CAP II project has enabled U&S to keep working with key populations. As U&S receives little funding it requires external resources to be able to do outreach work.
Working together on the EC CAP II project has brought many benefits to both CHAA and U&S on a day-to-day basis. Kenita feels “what we’ve started is amazing – [but] we need to look beyond the project”. She wants to do more joint advocacy work with CHAA, particularly on stigma and discrimination. She says “we have been treading carefully with faith-based organisations and we need to challenge ourselves. This is not always about making friends, but about setting down understandings about stigma and discrimination”. Pushing the boundaries of a working relationship in this manner is one way of bringing about change and collaboration in St. Lucia.