Ensuring the Safety of Community Outreach Workers is Critical to HIV Programs

Photo credit: LINKAGES/MSH

In September 2016, peer educator Sonia* was detained along with sex workers at a hot spot where she was conducting outreach on prevention of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. After a long wait at the police station where she and the others were being held, Sonia was finally able to provide proof of her work to the police chief. Her documents explained how she was working to bring HIV services to the populations most vulnerable to HIV, key populations such as female sex workers (FSWs), transgender individuals, and men who have sex with men (MSM), to help stop the spread of disease. Once the police chief understood, he promised to release Sonia and the others the next morning for their safety.

Sonia works with LINKAGES partner Cuidados da Infância (CI). Her experience demonstrates that outreach workers should: 1) always carry identity documents that can prove they work for a project that has institutional backing; and 2) are trained to assertively explain to police officers or any other public authority what they do.

[Monitoring and evaluation officer from CI at a GPS hot spot mapping training in 2019. Photo credit: LINKAGES/MSH]Monitoring and evaluation officer from CI at a GPS hot spot mapping training in 2019. Photo credit: LINKAGES/MSH

LINKAGES Angola has adapted the security curriculum standardized by the LINKAGES Global Project to increase the skills of community outreach teams to recognize risks while working and to take necessary precautions. LINKAGES also implemented other measures, resulting in improved team security and stronger relationships between implementing partners such as CI and government agencies. These measures included:

1. Formally introducing the project to provincial and municipal police commands. Standard letters were disseminated that explained the goals and approach of the project. An endorsement by the National AIDS Institute (INLS) accompanied these letters as well as a request for a meeting to further strengthen the relationship between civil society and authorities.

2. Obtaining peer educator and lay counselor training certificates from the INLS. The certificate helped lend credibility to the outreach workers. The project also invested in badges, T-shirts, and lab coats with the project ́s logo, which reinforced this credibility in the eyes of authorities.

3. Drafting letters to spouses or partners of peer educators. Gender-based violence experienced by peer educators and FSWs often begins at home. Official letters explaining the valuable work of the outreach workers contributed to greater respect from husbands and partners.

4. Including indicators of unsafe hot spots. Outreach workers from organizations such as CI visit over 30 hot spots in Luanda Province each week. Each hot spot is mapped with GPS coordinates and categorized as safe/unsafe depending on whether there are many reported fights among patrons or crimes that take place in the area. This way the workers make better use of transport resources and plan visits at times that minimize risk exposure.

Labor safety is a basic right of every worker. Projects such as LINKAGES, whose partners provide services in remote and unsafe areas, must ensure the safety of outreach personnel.

* Pseudonym to protect identity.

The Linkages across the Continuum of HIV Services for Key Populations Affected by HIV (LINKAGES) project, a global cooperative agreement led by FHI 360, was implemented in Angola by MSH in partnership with civil society organizations (CSOs), government stakeholders, and key population (KP) individuals, with support from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). 

Created in June 1995, CI ́s mission is to promote the development and well-being of communities in general, especially women and children. Based in Luanda, CI enhances community prevention efforts regarding HIV, other sexually transmitted infections, malaria, and child protection. CI contributed to LINKAGES between 2015-2019. It offered HIV prevention and testing services to 23,641 sex workers, 3,066 men who have sex with men and 163 transgender women (as of August 2019).