If there was one word that could describe the way forward in strengthening
the fight against AIDS, that word would be “change.” The word could either
mean altering the state of something or adding new, creative, innovative
aspects to it.

Change and creative, unconventional methods are necessary in the way
governments deal with the AIDS epidemic. So says Senator Mechai
Viravaidhaya, Chaiperson of the Population and Community Developmet
Association in Thailand, popularly known as the Condom King.

“Many governments around the world – when they take action on AIDS – do something
to prevent and something to provide health care”, he said. “But very little
attention and resources are being put in to enable people living  with AIDS
to participate in daily economic life and to enhance their survival.

Discrimination continues to have tragic effects in the lives of all these
people. And due to the stigma most of them cannot fully participate in
economic activities and are viewed, sometimes, as even a burden to their
economies and to members of the community… including in my own country,”
he added.

Because of this realisation the government of Thailand has introduced a
micro-finance scheme, “Positive Partnership – Economic Empowerment Through Micro-Credit to Provide Economic Livelihood Opportunities and to Reduce Stigma.”

“A large majority of them are unemployed and without savings, like in the
rest of the world. And they have a terrible sense of hopelessnes, which has
prohibited them from earning a living”, noted Senator Viravaidhaya.

At first the programme started as a pilot project.

“We started with our own funds first, and then we went to UNAIDS and told
them about this experiment. And they said, ‘okay, let’s do it.’ So, we
started lending to people living with AIDS and later expanded it to include
those affected by HIV/AIDS.”

Loans granted – to the value of $300 (R1 800) or 15 000 bahts in the local currency –
are used to start small business opportunities, such as farming and
tailoring. The grantees are expected to repay the loans at a 6% interest
rate within six to 12 months. And the record of repayments shows that people
living with HIV/AIDS are not a financial risk. “It’s been very, very regular
repayment,”, said Viravaidhaya proudly.

As the money accumulates, more loans can be made to the grantees. Because of
this reliability, the programme has now expanded to involve general society.
“What is interesting is that once the loans are repaid and all the HIV
positive people have their loans, we then lend the money to ordinary poor
people in the villages. And all of the sudden they realise, ‘where did this
money come from?’
It’s from those people who are HIV positive. They are making resources
available to us… They realise that the government did not give the
resources. It was these people whom we misunderstood who are providing
resources to us”, explained Viravaidhaya.

So, anyone can access the micro-finance scheme, regardless of their HIV
status. It’s not mandatory for one to reveal their status when applying for
a loan.

Viravaidhaya posed a challenge to governments and international lending
organisations. “HIV positive people do repay their loans, and so deserve to
receive credit from financial institutions. Right around the world we need
to ask institutions like the World Bank and other banks to lend money to HIV
positive people or help to guarantee financial assistance.”

He said economic empowerment of people living with AIDS is a means to reduce
stigma and discrimination and stressed that every country needs such a
project because PWA’s also have lives and expenses.

“Since receiving these loans HIV positive people have a whole new life – new
economic status, health status, social status. And the new economic
opportunity has given them a real reason to live. And if you ask them they
say, ‘they’re going to live forever.’ Therefore, I’d like to suggest very
strongly that ‘Positive Partnerships’ is good economics and is sustainable.
Once you give a loan in one area to begin the business, you don’t have to
give it again.

We’ve witnessed economic empowerment delivering people from stigma. It
should be introduced everywhere. I hope donors, apart from providing money
for research, will provide funds to allow people living with AIDS to have
meaningful economic lives and use it to reduce stigma and discrimination
because money talks,” said Senator Michai Viravaidhaya.

Thailand has since helped to export “Positive Partnerships” to neighbouring
countries such as Laos and Vietnam.

In South Africa, a pioneering research initiative under Wits University’s Rural AIDS and Development (RADAR) project using micro-finance is currently underway in the rural areas of
Limpopo to investigate how economic empowerment can help rural women make better health choices and to negotiate safer sex.

E-mail Khopotso Bodibe

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