Outreach workers often face risks to their personal safety and security when providing much needed services to marginalised of hard-to-reach communities. They often do so on a voluntary basis or for a relatively small payment compared to international aid workers who operating in the same area. The potential threats and experiences of violence are particularly acute when the organisations are run by and for communities that are criminalised under the legal framework of a particular country. These communities are in need of important health and other essential services, just like everyone. In fact, may need more services given the vulnerabilities and risks they face in everyday life.
Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is
“Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person”
Last week I had the privilege of facilitating a workshop in Nairobi, Kenya, designed to provide tools and resources to community based organisations to protect their safety and security. The purpose of the workshop was to bring together activists and organisers running community based organisations in East and Southern Africa, focusing on documenting violence, responding to protect the safety and security of colleagues, and creating plans for short and longer-term responses to preventing and responding to violence.
“It is through our struggles that our planning becomes real and the relevance is shown.”
The group drew together participants predominantly from east Africa (Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania) and also from people with relevant expertise from other parts of the world (South Africa, Nigeria, Thailand) and international partners (Switzerland, USA, UK, India and Australia). We were also diverse in terms of the communities and organisations represented, which focussed on community based organisations working in providing health and other services for people vulnerable to contracting HIV.
“We are stronger together in the face of violence.”
The community based organisations represented at the workshops are often linked together under the public health term “key populations,” which essentially means that they are people who are key to all aspects of responding to a health issue including providing awareness, testing, diagnosis, treatment and support services. In the context of HIV, key population groups are men who have sex with men, people who use drugs, trans* people and people who sell sex.
“Knowledge is power, we need to understand our rights”
Different opinions and ideas were shared, and throughout the 3 day meeting there was a strong sense of dignity and a common purpose. The discussions were respectful, noting that at times trade-offs have been (or have to be) made between accessing services and staying safe, for example if accessing a service means full disclosure about your sexual behaviour (where selling sex or having sex with another man is criminalised). Or trade-offs between human rights and gender expression; or between having hidden cameras to record potential acts of violence and protecting privacy and confidentiality.
“Security starts with us as individuals, when it fails, we just join hands so we can go forward together.”
The workshop was convened by the International HIV/AIDS Alliance and FHI 360, as part of the LINKAGES project. The outcome of the meeting was a re-energised sense of commitment and common concern to protect safety and security. The discussions will lead to the finalisation of a report, a checklist that can be used as a planning tool, and also a set of principles to guide support at the community level from regional and international partners.
Sharing that space and listening to the ideas and stories the participants brought to the meeting, was a reminder of how motivated, committed, and often exploited outreach community workers are. It should be the responsibility of employers to safeguard the rights of their employees, and this should apply equally to outreach workers in communities as to office workers in capital cities. It’s a human right that should be applied for all; it should not be an optional benefit applied only to some.