When Activism Changes Lives

May 30th, 2016, LINKAGES’ Peer Educators Training. It is the first day, time for each peer educator-to-be to introduce themselves to the group. Claudia* is nervous and apprehensive as she has never spoken in public before, let alone as a sex worker. With the help from the facilitator, she manages to say a few words, though her voice trembles almost inaudibly as her gaze faces the floor.

February 22nd, 2018, LINKAGES’ Police Training on the Protection of Key Populations. A highly anticipated activity: members from the key population (KP) community and police staff are meeting for the first time to discuss issues related to violence, discrimination, and rights pertaining to KPs. This is a time met with anxiety and high expectations from both sides, and for Claudia, it’s a special day.

For the first time in her life, she finally shares her dramatic experience of sexual and physical violence at the hands of police officials as well as at the hands of her partner. While she is visibly nervous, she looks people in the eye and bravely shares her story with a firm voice.

She has come far from her first training as a peer educator nearly two years ago. Now, Claudia is a well-respected supervisor of other peer educators, and she uses that platform to voice the needs of her community and ask the police for the protection of her peers so that they would not experience what she did.

“If it weren’t for the LINKAGES Project, I’d probably still be doing drugs and be living with HIV.”

Prior to becoming a peer educator, Claudia earned a living as a sex worker. The working conditions were harsh and violence was not uncommon. A tearful Claudia remembers that, at the time, she needed to take drugs to cope with her life. She would have unprotected sex as long as it paid well. After all, she had to support her family. “I don’t know how I didn’t get infected with HIV at that time,” she openly shares.

The day that she was approached by a peer educator from the LINKAGES Project changed the course of her life forever.  She was invited to take part in a project aimed for women like her, a space where she felt accepted for the first time. Thanks to the LINKAGES Project, she has learned about sexually transmitted infections including HIV - how to prevent, test, care for, and treat them. She has taken part of a weekly empowerment group for sex workers carried out by LINKAGES, a space that provides them with emotional support, a sense of worth, and practical advice such as coping mechanisms and strategies for learning new ways of behaving and solidarity with one another. She has learned to cope with and address violence and has become a source of community empowerment. She has developed the skills to manage her emotions and become a leader for other women. She cherishes the opportunity to put all her learning as an activist and personal growth at the service of other women like her and transform their lives.

The LINKAGES Project in Angola works with the government, community-based organizations, key populations, and health care providers to expand their ability to plan and deliver services that reduce HIV transmission. In Angola, MSH serves as the operating partner for LINKAGES, a cooperative agreement funded by PEPFAR and USAID and led by FHI360.

*Name changed to protect anonymity