Written by Vanessa Mosenge, Gender-Based Violence Consultant, LINKAGES
In Francophone Africa, as in many other contexts, key populations (KPs) experience violence and other human rights abuses, including harassment, exploitation, rejection, and denial of health, legal, and security/safety services. As violence increases HIV risk and poses serious barriers to KPs’ ability to access HIV services, the LINKAGES project has systematically worked to integrate violence prevention and response (VPR) into HIV programs for KPs.
Community-based organizations (CBOs) in Burundi, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and Mali have shown great interest in addressing violence against KPs, including ensuring that service providers – health care workers, peer educators/outreach workers, and police officers – understand that violence is a real, priority issue for KPs and provide KP-friendly VPR services. As one KP member put it, “We want to get help like any other victim would and deserves, without things turning against us.”
Recognizing this need, a central component of LINKAGES’ VPR programming is building the skills of service providers – peer educators, outreach workers, and police officers – to ask about violence and provide first-line support to KP individuals who disclose violence, including linking them to essential health, psychosocial, and legal services. I have trained teams from Burundi, Cameroon, DRC, and Mali on VPR over the past three years, and one thing that has stood out to me is that many services providers start with the harmful belief (however untrue) that KPs make choices that expose themselves to violence and cannot blame anyone but themselves. During training activities – particularly panels where KPs share personal experiences – I’ve seen service providers introspectively assess how some of their behaviors hinder KPs’ access to services. In fact, I have seen doctors, lawyers, police officers, and government officials become more receptive and affirm that KPs also have a right to live free from violence and deserve services.
In addition to changing harmful beliefs, training service providers has helped them to become more informed about violence and its link with HIV, and service providers have begun to sensitize KPs on what violence is and what support is available through peer outreach, violence screening, psychosocial counselling, and support groups. For example, a peer leader in Cameroon shared, “Violence is prevalent; people don’t respect us; our clients and police do violate us. With this training, we know what to say to our peers; we tell our peers to talk about violence because it is very important to our health.” Service providers are also better able to create a safe environment and provide support to KP survivors. A health care worker in Cameroon further noted, “Training on GBV response helps us address stigma in relation to violence in the sense that we can help survivors know that violence is not their fault, and to speak up. We can also assure survivors of confidentiality and help them feel safe to disclose violence.” In fact, soon after LINKAGES VPR trainings take place, we observe a marked increase in the number of cases of violence reported and the number of KP members receiving support.
In-country capacity building has also helped service providers, government partners, and other stakeholders come together for a coordinated, multisector response to violence among KPs. LINKAGES’ engagement of service providers and other partners is important not only to ensure that KPs get all of the services they need and deserve, but also to garner political support for VPR work. In particular, the involvement of police is critical. Police are often cited as perpetrators of violence against KPs, leaving many KPs feeling as if they have no recourse when they experience violence. In Mali and DRC, we have successfully involved police and other law enforcement personnel in VPR trainings and activities, sensitizing them to the rights and needs of KPs, helping them to see their roles as allies and protectors when KPs experience violence, and helping to build trust between KP communities and the police.
One thing is common among KPs, irrespective of country and context — the desire to live in their community without fear of being abused and mistreated and, instead, to feel safe and protected. The LINKAGES VPR work fulfils the desire and right to live free from violence and contributes to effective KP programming that is responsive to the needs of KP community members.