How to Leave the ‘Discrimination Bubble’

by Alejandra Cabrera, Regional Strategic Communications, PASMO

Behind her dark, wooden desk at the Human Rights Office of Santa Ana in El Salvador, Rosa Guillermina Sandoval, or “Rossy,” recalls how far she has come.

“Talking about sex, even sexuality, was taboo,” Rossy remembers. “At home, these topics were completely prohibited.” Santa Ana’s Human Rights Office, which Rossy leads, is the leading human rights institution in the province. In October 2017, Rossy received a letter from the Pan American Social Marketing Organization (PASMO) as part of USAID’s Combination Prevention Program. In the letter, PASMO asked the Office to become a “Generation Zero ‘stigma and discrimination-free zone’” through a sensitization process, which strengthens institutional capacity on the topics of gender, sexual diversity, HIV, stigma, discrimination and sexual and reproductive rights.

The population of Santa Ana, like many cities in Central America, is not particularly open to discussing or advocating for issues related to sexual health and sexual diversity. The Combination Prevention Program has made strides to increase the access of key populations to HIV testing and counseling services and linking them to care. But highly vulnerable groups such as gay and bisexual men and transgender women still report persistent barriers, including the fear that healthcare providers will out them as gay, bisexual or HIV positive. Others report that they prefer to receive their treatment at a clinic far away from their homes where they will not risk being recognized as well as fear of the consequences of being HIV positive, including rejection by family members, friends or partners. Other structural barriers include workplace policies such as the inability to get permission to leave work for services or fear of retribution, including termination if they are HIV positive.

Rossy wanted to make a difference when she joined the Human Rights Office of Santa Ana ten years ago. “I had to leave the bubble I was in. I wanted to learn about and contribute to improving the social conditions of disadvantaged people,” she explained. “You can only do this by increasing knowledge and implementing actions. Working here allowed me to do that.”

To join Generation Zero, the Human Rights Office of Santa Ana had to complete a series of steps to identify the institution as a “stigma and discrimination-free zone.” To commit to this process, the Office signed a letter of commitment to follow-through with all of the steps, which include developing or updating a workplace HIV-related discrimination policy, training and sensitizing its staff, creating an internal committee for follow-up and developing an institutional action plan to be updated on an annual basis.

Rossy understood how important it was to improve her office’s capacity to better respond to the needs of people living with HIV and other vulnerable populations such as members of the LGBTI community. In her role as director, Rossy signed the letter of commitment on October 10th, 2017 and began to mobilize resources to carry out the process at the Human Rights Office. With PASMO’s technical assistance to train and sensitize staff and the collaboration of key partners, such as the National AIDS Program, to develop the institution’s workplace policy, the office became a stigma- and discrimination-free zone on November 30th, 2017.

In 2018 alone, the Combination Prevention Program had completed or was in process of completing the Generation Zero process with 12 public institutions and private companies across the region, including the Human Rights Offices of El Salvador’s two other main provinces. In three countries, the Program specifically contacted or was working with the leading human rights offices to of transfer the process and build a more sustainable response to the stigma and discrimination barriers that key populations face.

Banner image courtesy of Flickr/Randal Sheppard

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