CSO-Hub Secretariat with support from UNDP and the University of Belize hosts HIV Rapid Testing and Counselling Training in Belize City

The Civil Society Hub Organization (CSO-Hub) Secretariat, with technical support from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the University of Belize (UB), hosted an HIV Rapid Testing and Counselling Training for civil society stakeholders from 17 – 21 May 2021 in Belize City.  The training focused on building capacity to implement rapid HIV testing interventions with limited human resources.

The course was designed to provide guidelines and skill-building opportunities to potential HIV testers.  This involved training participants in identifying strategies to support clients in making behaviour changes that would reduce the risk of acquiring or transmitting HIV.

Participants were also involved in practical sessions on the six (6) steps of prevention counselling.

Capacity building was also provided on HIV counselling, the HIV rapid test algorithm, finger prick and blood collection, safety at the HIV testing site, record keeping, quality assurance of HIV rapid testing, quality control, proficiency testing and professional ethics.

The initiative forms part of Belize’s National AIDS Programme, which aims to significantly reduce HIV infections among the most vulnerable populations.

Image: Executive Director, National AIDS Commission (NAC) Belize, Enrique Romero, delivering opening remarks during the HIV Rapid Testing Workshop

Engaging Men and Boys to advance gender equality and help prevent GBV

Gender-based violence (GBV) is recognized as one of the most severe forms of human rights violations and public health challenges. It occurs at home, the workplace, schools, political circles, prisons, and health institutions, to name a few. Perpetrators can range from intimate partners, family members, employers, co-workers, and state officials[1].

In the Caribbean, societies are organized around hierarchical gender power relations with male domination, reducing women’s economic and emotional independence.

According to UN Women Caribbean, 1 in 3 women in the Caribbean experience domestic violence, and over one-third of the region’s women report intimate or sexual violence incidents[2].

While there have been numerous workshops, panel discussions, and calls to action on GBV and gender equality, men and boys’ engagement in the discourse has been limited. Men and boys need to become more visible as integral partners in tackling sexual/gender-based violence and gender inequality. There is the need to engage boys and men as agents of change in the prevention and response, not just perpetrators or bystanders.

One of the National Gender-based Violence Action Plan outcomes calls for men and boys’ increased understanding of the dynamics of gender and violence and their active involvement in reducing GBV in Belize.

As a result, the Spouses of CARICOM Leaders Action Network (SCLAN) and the National Women’s Commission of Belize, with support from the Spotlight Initiative, implemented the “Engaging Men and Boys” project.

The initiative included a “Training of trainers” programme, workplace training, a peer education toolkit, school training and a public awareness campaign.

The objectives of the project encompassed identifying strategies for men and boys to understand the dynamics of GBV and commit to helping to end all forms of violence utilizing the positive deviance approach; challenging views about masculinity using role modelling and the positive deviance approach to transform attitudes and beliefs which contribute to family violence.  The project also aimed to equip men and boys with tools and strategies to help prevent GBV in their personal lives and community.

SCLAN plans to expand the project regionally in 2022.

Image:

“Belmopan Active Youths” (Belize) participating in a workplace session implemented under the “Engaging Men and Boys” Project.

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[1] National Gender-Based Violence Action Plan: A Multisectoral Plan to Prevent and Respond to Gender-Based Violence in Belize 2017 – 2020; Ministry of Human Development, Social Transformation and Poverty Alleviation

[2] Violence Against Women in the Caribbean: A Critical Analysis

PANCAP hosts dialogue on COVID-19 vaccines with PLHIV in Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago

Image: From left: Dr Rosmond Adams, Director, PANCAP, Dr Shanti Singh-Anthony, Coordinator, Knowledge Management, PANCAP Coordinating Unit, Dr Tariq Jagnarine, National AIDS Programme Manager, Guyana and Dr Ayanna Sebro, Technical Director, National AIDS Coordinating Committee Secretariat (NACC), Republic of Trinidad and Tobago

PANCAP facilitated a virtual discussion with People Living with HIV (PLHIV) in Guyana and the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago to foster an improved understanding of the safety and efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccines.

The discussion was chaired by Dr Shanti Singh-Anthony, Coordinator, Knowledge Management, PANCAP Coordinating Unit, with support from Dr Tariq Jagnarine, National AIDS Programme Manager, Guyana and Dr Ayanna Sebro, Technical Director, National AIDS Coordinating Committee Secretariat (NACC), Trinidad and Tobago.

In opening remarks, Dr Singh-Anthony highlighted that despite the large volume of information available on COVID-19, it was important for PLHIV to hear experiences from their peers who received the vaccine.  She emphasized the importance of sharing first-hand experiences to increase the acceptance of the vaccine among PLHIV.

The Knowledge Coordinator referred to data provided by the World Health Organisation (WHO) that indicated that the COVID-19 vaccines approved by regulators are safe for everyone, including PLHIV and that there is no reason why PLHIV should not take the vaccines when offered.

Dr Singh-Anthony further explained that before vaccines are licensed for scale-up, national regulators review the data and ensure they are safe. No data have emerged to cause worry that PLHIV are at any greater risk from the COVID-19 vaccines than anyone else.  She further highlighted that the Region has surveillance systems in place to ensure that rare but serious adverse events are reported to the public health authorities and the manufacturers of the vaccines.

In remarks, Dr Rosmond Adams, Director, PANCAP, emphasized the importance of dialogue on the COVID-19 vaccine within the community of People Living with and affected by HIV, especially with regard to the harmful repercussions of “fake news” and misinformation about the vaccines. He referred to the current data from WHO, which underlined the safety and efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccines and urged PLHIV to continue to promote vaccination and other COVID-19 public health precautions.

The Guyana team shared their experiences with accessing the COVID-19 vaccines; participants shared their fears and how these were overcome by seeking advice from healthcare professionals.  They also highlighted the importance of following the science and WHO guidance on the safety of the COVID-19 vaccines.

The Guyana team also highlighted that there were no severe adverse effects from the vaccine among the group of PLHIV that shared their experiences.  Mild reactions reported included minor pain around the injection site and mild fever, which the WHO has listed as expected side-effects from the COVID-19 vaccine.

Members of the Trinidad Team shared their experiences, including a detailed description of the process involved in receiving the vaccines at health centres.  Participants from Trinidad also echoed the sentiments of Dr Adams, providing first-hand accounts of being exposed to large volumes of misinformation shared on social media and instant messaging platforms.  The team reiterated the importance of seeking information on the vaccines from trusted sources, including the Ministry of Health and PAHO/WHO.

Dr Sebro concluded the discussion by underscoring the importance of continued dialogue among PLHIV on the COVID-19 vaccines. She explained that the virtual dialogue is the first of many initiatives planned by NACC to increase the uptake of the COVID-19 vaccines among PLHIV in Trinidad and Tobago.

In addition, PANCAP will host a webinar, “COVID-19 Vaccines and PLHIV”, on Friday 18 June. A video series highlighting the safety and efficacy of the vaccines among PLHIV will also premiere on all PANCAP digital platforms.

COVID-19 and the impact on Vulnerable Populations

The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic is a global health emergency. With the indiscriminate spread of COVID-19 globally, many vulnerable populations are experiencing negative consequences such as job loss, food insecurity, and the inability to manage existing medical conditions and maintain preventive measures such as social distancing and personal preventative gear. Some of the most disadvantaged in the COVID-19 era are People Living with HIV (PLHIV) and other high-risk groups.

There is great concern about the impact of COVID-19 among the nearly 40 million PLHIV worldwide. HIV treatment centers and care delivery systems have been adversely impacted in several countries during the pandemic. But this has created an opportunity to apply alternative strategies like multi-month prescription, decentralizing HIV care in low-resource settings and introducing telemedicine in high-resource settings.  Other alternative methods include retention in care programmes and direct observation of treatment critical in mitigating shocks to healthcare systems in the future.

Like HIV and AIDS, COVID-19 has a more significant impact on people who are already marginalized. As a result, there is concern over the continued spread of COVID-19 in poorer countries and those with higher HIV rates. According to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 16.7% of COVID-19 patients in intensive care are immunocompromised with underlying health conditions and their chances of recovery are much lower.

GROUPS MOST AT RISK

For COVID-19, failure to adhere to physical distancing or handwashing recommendations constitute behaviours that increase the risk for contracting COVID-19. People who are older or have pre-existing conditions such as chronic respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, cancer and diabetes are at greater risk of being infected with COVID-19. It is well established that HIV disproportionately affects groups already marginalized, including racial/ethnic and sexual or gender minorities and those living in poverty. It is quickly being recognized that COVID-19 also disproportionately affects minority groups, which is not surprising given existing health disparities and economic instability.

HEALTH DISPARITIES

As with HIV, the COVID-19 pandemic reveals the systemic inadequacies that produce health disparities. There is a disproportionate burden on already vulnerable populations experiencing poverty and other systemic stressors. The United Nations 2020’ report has indicated that increases in food costs and market stockpiling have had the most harmful impact on vulnerable communities, particularly those in low-income nations. Although vulnerable populations vary across countries, those with stigmatized or marginalized intersecting identities often experience the highest burden, including Men who have sex with Men (MSM), transgender women, people who inject drugs, commercial sex workers, young women, and youth (15–24), who account for a third of all new HIV infections. Furthermore, immigrants are at increased risk of infectious diseases, including both HIV and COVID-19, as are other people who are displaced.

Additionally, PLHIV in rural areas may experience additional barriers that inhibit access to care, such as the lack of adequate technology to support telemedicine, lack of finances for transportation to attend clinics, and other barriers to accessing care during the current pandemic.

BIOLOGICAL IMPACT OF COVID-19 ON HIV TREATMENT

PLHIV, whose disease is not well managed and whose condition is not virally suppressed, are placed at an increased risk for contracting and experiencing complications related to COVID-19, in addition to complications associated with HIV disease progression. Given the lifelong prognosis of HIV, it is imperative for PLHIV to visit their healthcare providers regularly and adhere to treatment.  PLHIV are also more likely to contract opportunistic infections such as pneumonia, Tuberculosis, Toxoplasmosis, etc., than those without compromised immune systems. They may experience delayed treatment due to COVID-19. This can occur due to overcrowding in an already taxed healthcare system. PLHIV who seek out urgent care may face an increased risk of contracting COVID-19 among other illnesses while in healthcare settings.

COVID-19 has taken a dramatic toll on HIV health care services. Lockdowns and associated changes have hampered the ability to deliver standard health care services, including testing, treatment, care, and dispensing of antiretroviral drugs (ARVs). Those associated changes include closing clinics, community health workers’ inability to visit PLHIV, the inability of support groups to meet, and the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) for health providers. Evidence already shows an overall decline in persons coming to facilities for HIV testing and clinical care and treatment.

PSYCHOLOGICAL IMPACT OF COVID-19 ON HIV TREATMENT

Given the unprecedented nature of COVID-19, an increase in anxiety has been prevalent worldwide. Furthermore, the CDC has noted that individuals with chronic health conditions, such as HIV, may develop a stronger stress response than the rest of the population. This strong stress response is due to an increased risk of contracting COVID-19 due to a compromised immune system. The compounded stigma associated with an HIV-positive status and COVID-19 may lead to an array of mental health issues and psychological disorders such as depression, sleep disorder, substance abuse, anxiety, schizophrenia, and personality disorders, which may trigger somatoform disorders which may lead to failure to seek care.

RECOMMENDATIONS

HIV services must continue to be made available for people living with and at risk of HIV. This includes ensuring the availability of condoms, lubricants, ARVs, sterile needles and syringes, harm reduction, pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and HIV testing.

To prevent persons not having an adequate supply of medicine and to reduce the need to access the health system, countries should move to the full implementation of multi-month dispensing of three months or more of HIV treatment.  This can be further enhanced with telemedicine, virtual support groups, food hamper delivery and increased mobile testing. There must be access to COVID-19 services for vulnerable people, including a targeted approach to reach those most left behind and removing financial barriers.

ADVICE FOR PEOPLE LIVING WITH HIV

  • People with a CD4 count of over 200 who are taking HIV treatment and have an undetectable viral load are considered at no greater risk than the general population. They should follow general advice to observe the curfew hours and maintain social distancing.
  • People with a CD4 count below 200, or who are not taking HIV treatment, or who have a detectable viral load may be at higher risk of severe illness. Nonetheless, they should still follow the same general advice.
  • People with a very low CD4 count below 50 or who have had an opportunistic illness in the last six months should follow the Ministry of Health guidelines – wear a mask, wash hands regularly and avoid crowded spaces with social distancing practices.

COVID-19 is serious, and PLHIV should take all recommended preventive measures to minimize exposure and prevent infection. As in the general population, older people living with HIV or PLHIV with heart or lung problems may be at a higher risk of becoming infected with the virus and suffering more severe symptoms.

All PLHIV should reach out to their healthcare providers to ensure that they have adequate supplies of essential medicine. Until more is known, PLHIV —especially those with advanced or poorly controlled HIV disease — should be cautious and pay attention to the prevention measures and recommendations by the Ministry of health.

NAC Belize and CRN+ collaborate to promote workplace-specific HIV policies

The National AIDS Commission (NAC), Belize, in partnership with the Caribbean Regional Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS (CRN+), hosted a virtual Public-Private Partnership (PPP) Forum with the participation of fifty (50) members of various sectors of society, including members of the public, private, and government sectors.

The Forum was facilitated by local consultant Dr Minerva Pinelo from “Rights Insights”. Presenters included Ms Eva Burgos, Executive Director, Gojoven Belize and CSO Hub, Mr Enrique Romero, Executive Director, NAC Belize, and Mr Jason Shepperd, Senior Programme Officer, CRN+.

The event, which was open to the public, provided the platform for participants to learn more about Belize’s HIV response.  The event also focused on the Caribbean’s HIV experience and, more significantly, the revised HIV workplace policy. The primary goal was to fuel engagement around the acceptance, development, and implementation of workplace-specific HIV policies.

The Primary objectives of having businesses and organizations formulate their own HIV workplace policy include but are not limited to creating an environment that is conducive to openness and acceptance among employees, ensuring confidentiality and non-discrimination, promoting awareness and prevention training programmes to reduce the possibility of contracting HIV and improve care, treatment, and support services.

Other objectives include promoting access to treatment and reducing new infections, limiting the impact of HIV and AIDS in the workplace at the individual level for employees, their families, and communities and ensuring a healthy workforce and long-term production sustainability.

The Forum also provided an opportunity for participants to engage in interactive discussions through a question-and-answer session and receive clarification on areas of interest related to HIV and AIDS.  The topics discussed included stigma and discrimination, the effects of COVID-19 on People Living with HIV (PLHIV) and the overall economy.  Participants also discussed ways to ensure mutually beneficial partnerships for progress, the need for increased technical support from the private sector to Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) and increased outreach support from the CSOs to the private sector.

Participants were provided with a brochure that included a roadmap in preparation for the development and design of an HIV workplace policy. The brochure can be accessed via the NAC’s website (www.nacbelize.org).

My COVID-19 vaccination experience and what lies ahead for us

(Georgetown, Guyana via Kaieteur News)  This past week gave me renewed hope of us getting ahead of this pandemic. I never thought I would be getting vaccinated against COVID-19 so early. It’s been less than a year since the World Health Organization declared this pandemic, and we already have access to vaccines against it in Guyana. I am grateful to the authorities, and I am also optimistic for my fellow Guyanese as the government has declared that there should be sufficient vaccines for all Guyanese in 2021. This has obviously provided us with an opportunity to exit the pandemic, and we need to grasp the opportunity to get vaccinated with both hands. Today, I will share my vaccination experience with you and present facts that will hopefully encourage you to get vaccinated as soon as your turn comes.

How I felt after getting vaccinated?

I was given my first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine late last week, and it was a surreal experience. As a health worker that routinely deals with COVID-19 patients, it felt like I was being given a dose of freedom as I wouldn’t have to put my life in jeopardy every time I have to see a patient. The nurse who administered my vaccine was as nice as they come, and I didn’t feel much when the vaccine was given to me. I then went back to work as per usual and had a productive workday. As it progressed into the evening, my arm got a bit sore, and I had a mild headache. As the night progressed and early the next day, I had some body aches and felt a little fatigued. I am currently firing on all cylinders and I’m feeling much more optimistic than before I was vaccinated.

Is it bad to get symptoms after being vaccinated?

While many see some post-vaccination symptoms and side effects as bad, I was very happy to have the body aches and fatigue. Knowing what I knew, I realised that my symptoms were a sign that my body was mounting an immune response to the vaccine, and therefore, I am developing immunity against COVID-19. If I didn’t get any symptoms after the vaccine, I would have been worried that I may not have mounted an immune response. While most look at the following symptoms as side effects of the vaccine, I look at them as our immune response to the vaccine:  sore arm, headache, chills, tiredness, feeling sick, fever, dizziness, weakness and aching muscles.

Of course, there may be a few persons with allergic reactions to the vaccine, but that is extremely rare. Most of the time, these persons would have had a history of being allergic to other vaccines. Please note that vaccines are different from injections that are given for pain and routine infections. If you were allergic to a pain or antibiotic injection, it doesn’t mean that you are allergic to vaccines. If you never had allergic reactions to vaccines, then it’s likely that you will not be allergic to the COVID-19 vaccine.

What lies ahead for me?

Now that I would have gotten my first dose, I will have to get a follow-up booster shot in three months. This booster shot basically seals the deal and strengthens my immune response even further, so that my body is more prepared to combat COVID-19. Currently, my immune system is developing antibodies against the SarsCov2 virus (Coronavirus) and it will take about a couple of weeks for sufficient antibodies to form. While there should be a decent amount of antibodies in about a month from now, the booster shot in three months will ramp those antibodies level further up so that I have an extremely strong defence system that is prepared and ready to overwhelm the coronavirus if I get in contact with it.

Can I finally move around without masks?

No, I cannot! As you just read, my body will take time to prepare a proper immune response against the Coronavirus. During this time, I can still get infected and be affected by COVID-19. In addition, there is a small percentage of people who the vaccine does not work as well as it does in most others. While I am optimistic that the vaccine is efficacious in me because of my symptoms after being vaccinated, I will not leave anything to chance. Therefore, I will still practise social distancing, wear my mask, and practice proper hygiene until enough of us are vaccinated and we can exit the pandemic.

What lies ahead for Guyana?

I am optimistic for us as a country especially after the government announced that it should have sufficient vaccines for all Guyanese in 2021. We need to vaccinate around 75-80 percent of our population before we can begin to safely move around freely and without masks. If we take too long to do this and the virus continues to spread, then the virus is likely to mutate even more and the current vaccines may become ineffective. We are racing against the virus and these vaccines are the boosters that we have to win this race before the virus mutates too much and we can never catch up with it.

I urge you to get vaccinated as soon as your turn arrives and encourage everyone you know to do the same. We are in this together and can only get out if we all play our part and get vaccinated. If more than 25 percent of us choose not to get vaccinated, then we are stuck in this pandemic and we will all continue to suffer for years to come.

Public Health Champion – Dr Ruth Ramos

Dr Ruth Ramos Gonzalez-Ram is a Cuban born, Guyanese-trained physician who has made significant contributions in HIV medicine, patient care and services provided in Guyana. On the occasion of her retirement, I sat with her to find out a little more about her journey and her experiences over the years.

Dr Ramos graduated from the University of Guyana School of Medicine in 2000 and started to work at Georgetown Public Hospital Corporation (GPHC). In her days at the Internal Medicine department, Dr Ramos recalls that she was always attracted to what was referred to as the “back cubicle”- where all the AIDS patients were placed. At that time, knowledge of HIV and AIDS was minimal, there were no antiretroviral drugs available, and there was little one could do to help these patients.

Fast forward a few years, and in 2002, she was asked to be a substitute doctor at the Genito-Urinary Medicine (GUM) Clinic at a time when they anticipated they were going to be short of staff. She worked at the GUM clinic initially for two months, but her interest was solidified in working with infectious diseases and HIV medicine during this time. Upon her return to GPHC, she requested to be permanently transferred over to the GUM Clinic.

Dr Ramos recalls that there were many challenges in the early days: delayed HIV results, unavailability and limitations with regards to treatment options and lack of knowledge on HIV management. She said there were many times when improvisation was necessary, especially when treating children, but that they always worked to make the most of what they had in every situation to do the best for patients.

Dr Ramos says there have been many improvements and she has been a first-hand witness to these as they have happened over the years. Presently, HIV testing is available across the country, care and treatment have been de-centralized, and people can access both antiretrovirals and treatment for opportunistic infections at many locations. She says human resources have significantly increased. More doctors, counsellors, outreach workers, and nurses have been properly trained and equipped to manage HIV. Literature has become widely available, and the country has developed its guidelines and protocols for HIV management. Dr Ramos is proud to have witnessed this transformative period and to have played a role in making it happen.

When asked to share some of the key things she has learnt over the years, Dr Ramos says that working with HIV patients, at the time when she did, introduced her to a virgin field in medicine in Guyana. She enjoyed growing and learning with the development in the field; discovering new diagnostic methods, new therapies, understanding management of opportunistic infections. However, above all, she says that the most important thing she learnt was to “be less of a doctor and more of a human”. She said some of the most important things she learned were to be a better listener, more patient, less judgmental, more compassionate, and overall, her experiences have made her a better person.

Dr Ramos’s most significant achievement over the years has been having the privilege of motivating and supporting patients in some of the darkest moments of their lives, giving them hope and reassuring them. This has given her great joy, to see many of her patients lead productive lives and have undetectable viral loads. She said, “To see little children, now grown up, having healthy children of their own, that gives me great satisfaction, and I call it success!”.

Dr Ramos hopes that HIV can be integrated into healthcare as just another chronic disease in the future. She hopes that stigma and discrimination will be eliminated from both the medical community and society at large. She hopes that there will be better treatment options developed and that maybe one day, we will even have a vaccine to prevent HIV infection and relegate HIV to the history books.

Dr Ramos says to young doctors thinking about entering the field of HIV medicine, “If you want to be challenged every day, to keep exercising your brain and never be bored, go for it!”. She says that because HIV and infectious diseases are continuously evolving, it is imperative to keep updated.

Dr Ramos stresses the importance of staying humble as no one person will live long enough to understand all the mysteries of the human body and the diseases that can affect us. She says that she has had a most rewarding career and “I could never regret the day I decided to become an HIV physician!”

Caribbean Youth to benefit from UNFPA Sexuality Education Initiative

Youth in the Caribbean will benefit from Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) activities launched by the UNFPA in a virtual webinar in February. CSE programmes enable young people to protect their health, wellbeing and dignity and are a strategic vehicle for promoting gender equality and human rights. The activities will be conducted under the Spotlight Regional Programme for the Caribbean which is part of the wider Spotlight Initiative (SI), a global, multi-year partnership between the European Union and the United Nations to eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls by 2030.

The webinar provided an outline of the CSE activities to be implemented, and participants were allowed to provide inputs in accelerating the planned efforts. The effects of COVID-19 in the education sector that might also put at risk the continuity of the CSE delivery through Health and Family Life Education (HFLE) were also discussed.

Director and Representative for the UNFPA Sub-Regional Office of the Caribbean, Alison Drayton, who welcomed participants to the launch, highlighted that Caribbean youth’s growth and development continued to be undermined by what she called “new manifestations of age-old threats”. She identified several CSE challenges being faced by Caribbean youth. She expressed that vulnerability to all forms of violence, particularly bullying, sexual violence, abuse and exploitation and adolescent pregnancy rates remained very high.

Highlighting the role of the CSE initiatives in addressing these issues, the Director explained that strengthening regional capacities to advocate for and deliver quality CSE for in and out of school youth in the Caribbean was at the heart of the Regional Spotlight Programme. “The Comprehensive Sexuality Education interventions, through the Spotlight Initiative, are informed by robust evidence and aim to contribute to the collaborative efforts in preventing violence against women and girls in the Caribbean,” she said.

The CARICOM Secretariat is one of the organisations that has partnered with the UNFPA on this initiative and is playing a significant role in implementing the Spotlight Regional Programme for the Caribbean.

Helen Royer, Director, Human Development, CARICOM Secretariat, said the implementation of a regional HFLE curriculum, the creation of resources and toolkits, training of teachers to communicate the curriculum, and improved coordination among all the agencies at the regional and national levels are among the outcomes of CARICOM’s efforts at strengthening HFLE. Despite those investments, she was concerned that the key messages of HFLE were still not being converted into measurable behaviour change.

Against that backdrop, Ms Royer said CARICOM welcomed the Spotlight Initiative to enhance regional capacities to advocate and deliver quality Comprehensive Sexual Education.

“The interventions are aligned with the hopes for healthy and contributing Caribbean citizens, as outlined in the CARICOM Human Resource Development 2030 Strategy and are also in support of the recently launched Road map by PAHO for promoting the health and wellbeing of adolescents and youth in the Caribbean which received CARICOM’s support and endorsement,” Ms Royer stated.

UNFPA works with governments, civil society and other partners to implement CSE. UNFA also promotes policies for and investments in comprehensive sexuality education programmes that meet internationally agreed standards. This initiative is financed through funding from the European Union and UN agencies through the Spotlight Initiative.

COIN launches “Caribbean United against Gender-based Violence – GBV”.

The COVID-19 Pandemic has resulted in a surge in cases of violence against girls and women in the Region.  In response,  the Centro de Orientación e Investigación Integral (COIN) with support from the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs has launched “Caribbean United against Gender-based Violence – GBV”.

The goal of the project is to address the root causes of GBV in the Caribbean and to contribute to the end of violence against women and promote equitable environments.

Santo Rosario, Executive Director, COIN expressed that “One of the biggest problems in the international framework has its roots in the cultural and educational processes of our societies, which place women in a situation of vulnerability compared to men. Gender inequality is a structural problem that requires that all the structures of the state and civil society recognize the implicit bias as well as the explicit discrimination that exists and promote laws and mechanisms that transform the way women are seen and treated. We must do segmented politics, as GBV is reflected in each one of the segments: at work, in politics, and relationships, as women are vulnerable in all these spheres. Policies, mechanisms and sanctions must be developed that accompany a new educational perspective that places women in a position of equality.”

The project will support the creation of an enabling environment through a series of community-level small grants that will include four types of interventions:

  • Change social norms: baseline surveys, training for men and boys that address socio-cultural attitudes that lead to GBV and social-emotional learning programmes.
  • Build institutional capacity and alliances: training with civil society organizations as well as with government entities, the establishment of multi-stakeholder discussion spaces and participation in networks.
  • Empower youth: empowerment and leadership training and direct involvement in local project activities as advocates against GBV.
  • Improve availability and access to services: mapping of existing services, securing MOUs among project sub-recipients and service providers, the establishment of a referral system and multi-stakeholder case management system.

In particular, these interventions aim to strengthen the capacity of local actors to provide GBV prevention and response services to survivors of abuse, improve available data on the services that are already put in place and reduce socio-cultural attitudes that lead to GBV.  The project also aims to strengthen civil society and local governments’ abilities to improve access to GBV services and address GBV issues that result from the COVID-19 Pandemic.

The project will be implemented through small grants to local organizations in twelve Caribbean countries, namely:  Antigua and Barbuda, The Bahamas, Barbados, Dominican Republic, Dominica, Grenada, Haiti, Jamaica, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Saint Lucia, and the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago.

Editor’s notes:

In the Caribbean, available data shows a troubling panorama: three of the top ten recorded rape rates in the world occur in the Caribbean[1] , and in nine Caribbean countries, 48% of adolescent girls’ sexual initiation was forced or “somewhat forced”[2]. Some examples include the Dominican Republic and Haiti, which, according to the UNDP, are among the four countries with the most significant gender inequality in the Region. Kay Fanm, a Haitian women’s rights organization, has estimated that 72% of Haitian girls have been raped. In the Dominican Republic, there is an average of 177 femicides (killing of a woman or girl, in particular by a man and on account of her gender) per year since 2005.

[1] 2007 report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and the LAC region

[2] According to a survey that was pointed to in the 2007 report aforementioned.

Public Health Champion – Vishnu Singh, Medical Student, St. George’s University

Vishnu Singh is a medical student at St. George’s University, Grenada. In this edition of the PANCAP Newsletter, he discusses his experiences as a medical student during the pandemic.  

“In early January, I travelled to California to study for my medical examination. By mid-March, I was mentally exhausted from studying for long hours every day and was eager to take the exam and return home. On my scheduled date, I endured the gruelling 8-hour long test, all the while thinking it would be over soon and worth it once I got home to relax. However, life threw a curveball, and when my exam was done, I was informed that Guyana’s airport would be closed to all incoming flights on the following evening due to COVID-19. I panicked to search for flights that would arrive before the airport’s closure. When I realised that it was impossible to arrive in Guyana on time, I was deeply disappointed. I followed the news daily to learn of any plans for repatriation flights.

Considerable time was spent communicating with consulates, filling out the repatriation form and waiting for feedback and then making arrangements to take my PCR test. It was tough for me to deal with the uncertainties, and I felt as though I was slowly losing my mind while waiting for good news. I decided to use that period to achieve some of my personal goals that were long overdue and also to take up some new hobbies, like meditation.

Finally, in mid-June, I was informed of my placement on a repatriation flight to Guyana. The flight itself was difficult, especially having to wear my mask for the entire time, but I knew it was necessary to stay safe, and I made it home in one piece. Upon return, I spent the first week at home under self-quarantine. An official from the Ministry of Health called me daily to check on me. I spent the next month trying to balance virtual classes and assist with the family business.

In early August, I returned to the USA via another repatriation flight to begin my third year of medical school. I was hesitant to start my training at such an unprecedented time, but I realised that medical assistance is needed now more than ever, and I must play my part.

Although COVID-19 posed many challenges for me, I constantly remind myself that my life could be much worse, and I should be grateful for all that I have. We need to remind ourselves of the positives and focus on the good things. I want to encourage you all to do this, stay safe and keep playing your part in this fight against COVID-19”.