The Engage blog: the challenge of empowermentCharity Insight Contributor
PEPAIDS aims to sensitise communities to HIV & AIDS and alleviate poverty by using peer education, but it’s not always as easy as it seems says Sasha Kasthuriarachchi
So what is peer education? It is a strategy that enables accurate, life-saving information to ripple throughout communities and is delivered by people who are fully trained, trusted and respected. Our Zambian team trains respected members of the community as Peer Educators who in turn train groups of people from within their own community to form AIDS Action Clubs (AACs).
Having been equipped with the facts about HIV/AIDS and knowledge of how to engage communities through outreach work, AACs develop and run a range of activities each week for their peers - from debates to drama workshops and sports events - in order to draw an audience and educate them about HIV/AIDS. In this way the information so vital to these communities is spread, not by outside agencies, but by a core of individuals from within the communities themselves.
We then support these clubs to begin income generation activities, so that they can sustain themselves and continue the work that they are doing. Eventually we can gradually withdraw our support and focus on empowering new communities.
Involving UK volunteers
Our key goal is to ensure that any changes or progress made by our AACs, whether in terms of behavioural change or income generation activities, is sustainable and this is possible when the solutions to some of the problems that these communities face come from community members themselves. Additionally, we have identified the important role that UK volunteers can play in achieving this sustainability: they augment the effectiveness of our fieldwork programmes by capacity building our clubs using their skills and knowledge in different areas.
During my year working for PEPAIDS one of my responsibilities is to identify potential areas where volunteers from the UK could fit into our current operations and to increase the number of AACs and Peer Educators that are operating in the towns and rural areas around Monze and Mazabuka. In order to do this, I have been visiting several AACs and facilitating sessions with them to find out how they are operating, what outreach programmes or income generation activities they are running, and the challenges that they face. This analysis of our Zambian operations also provides PEPAIDS with important demographic information, such as finding out how many people attend the activities run by AACs.
Thinking beyond the purse
Helping groups to come up with solutions to some of their problems is not easy, as peer educators often have to challenge communities to think beyond the notion that any problem can simply be solved by an outsider's monetary or material handout.
During some of my meetings with local AACs, I came face to face with this problem when asking groups about some of the difficulties that they faced and how they thought volunteers could help them to overcome these problems. One local theatre group I spoke to explained that they wanted to document their plays and so 'volunteers should buy us a camcorder' whilst a newly established women's football club said that they 'should be given football kits as this makes [them] feel more like a team'.
Although I understand why this perception exists, it is vitally important to help groups to recognise that these kinds of handouts are neither sustainable nor empowering. Therefore during my sessions I have tried to emphasise to each group that whilst UK volunteers will bring in valuable fundraising, the real benefit of having them is the variety of skills that they can share with the AACs and that this will have a much longer lasting impact.
For instance, with the theatre group, I explained how volunteers with skills in areas such as, film, theatre for development or applied theatre could build the groups' skills and knowledge, and also give them new community mobilisation and engagement techniques. Moreover, we discussed potential income generation activities that could support the group's outreach work - such as running a printing and photocopying business - and how volunteers could support the planning and implementation of this. Similarly, with the women's football team, we discussed the sports skills that the group would like to learn and how volunteers with coaching qualifications and an interest in sports could support the group. I am now in the process of developing a training plan for some of the groups so that I can begin to capacity-build them using some of my own skills.
Empowering communities and helping them to face issues such as HIV/AIDS and poverty is always going to be a challenge and often it is tempting to want to find a quick fix solution. However, what we are trying to achieve in our communities is attitudinal and behavioural change - something which takes a lot of time. I hope that by helping communities to take responsibility for standing on their own two feet, we are on our way to making a real and lasting difference.
Sasha Kasthuriarachchi is one of the eight 2010 Vodafone Foundation World of Difference International winners. To find out more about this opportunity visit the World of Difference website.
Applications for the World of Difference UK programme, delivered by the Vodafone Foundation, opened on Monday 11 October, and gives 500 people across the UK the opportunity to work for their favourite charity for two months and be paid for their time. Applications closed on the 23 November. To find out more, visit www.vodafone.co.uk/worldofdifference