OGERA is a partner of the Elton John AIDS Foundation through our Robert Key Memorial Fund. Together, we’re working to address HIV related self-stigma and mental health issues among female lesbian, bisexual and queer sex workers in Uganda.
Sex workers are a particularly vulnerable group. They experience high levels of stigma and discrimination, exacerbated by the hostile environment for sex workers and LGBTQ+ people, and the recent reawakened anti-homosexuality bill in Uganda.
OGERA provide their clients with an array of mental health services and care – including trauma management, healing sessions, and positive living programmes – with the goal to increase self-acceptance and address internalised stigma. The model aims to encourage positive behaviour change and consequently support HIV treatment adherence.
Engaging the Community
OGERA’s team of Community Peer Navigators are openly living with HIV and have been trained as Mental Health Champions under the project, funded by the Elton John AIDS Foundation.
During a community outreach conducted by OGERA at a local hotspot, they met Tukei Hellen, 38, who is a bisexual female sex worker. When Tukei was diagnosed with HIV in December 2006, she felt like she has been handed a death sentence. She withdrew from her family and friends in fear of them finding out her HIV status and was worried about facing an increased amount of stigma and discrimination for being a sex worker and living with HIV. This impacted her adherence to treatment, causing her health to deteriorate over the years.
“HIV is still very much perceived as a death sentence in my community and there’s still a lot of internal and external stigma associated,” Tukei said.
“There is also various myths and misconceptions related to HIV and AIDS.”
The OGERA team recognised Tukei’s leadership skills. She was trusted amongst her peers, but they knew she was struggling with depression and anxiety due to her status. By asking her to be involved in the project, they saw it as an opportunity to have a positive effect on her wellbeing, as well as those around her. OGERA engaged her in a comprehensive Peer Education Training to become a Peer Navigator, where she engages with her community to create demand, access to and utilisation of stigma-free health and legal services among other sex workers.
“This project has helped me become a responsible member of my community after learning and understanding how to apply a stepped-care approach through which I create and support linkages and referrals for integrated Mental Health and HIV services between health facilities and the Mukono sex workers’ community,” she shared.
Love, compassion, and self-acceptance
Since being a part of OGERA, Tukei has attended sessions about self-stigma, mental health, and responsible disclosure management.
“I was able to really understand that HIV is not actually the end of the road for us and we can still achieve our dreams and personal goals if we accept, adhere to Antiretroviral therapy and the clinic appointments and embrace living positively,” Tukei said.
Tukei gradually gained the confidence to disclose her HIV status to her family. While she had feared that her family wouldn’t accept her, and that the information about her status getting out could damage her only form of income – their reaction was overwhelmingly positive.Tukei’s family has provided her with a lot of emotional support, love, and care which has helped break away the self-stigma she felt towards herself.