Making the case for asking key populations about violence: A success story from South Sudan

Written by Kim Dixon, Gender-Based Violence Consultant, LINKAGES


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LINKAGES’ South Sudan team shares their commitment to addressing GBV during the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence campaign.

Before joining the LINKAGES project, I spent most of my career developing, managing, and evaluating gender-based violence (GBV) prevention and response programs for women and girls in emergency, post-conflict, and development settings, as well as in the U.S. In my role as a GBV consultant for LINKAGES, I support country programs to develop and implement violence prevention and response (VPR) programs for key populations (KPs). I have learned directly from KPs themselves about the multiple layers of stigma, discrimination, and violence that prevent them from seeking and accessing services after they experience violence.

Because KPs’ behaviors are frequently viewed as not conforming to traditional gender norms and are often criminalized (e.g., sex work, homosexuality, drug use), they are afraid to seek help after experiencing violence due to fear of being arrested, shamed, or denied services. For these reasons, unless we become proactive in identifying KP individuals who experience violence, we are missing opportunities to link victims to important post-violence services, such as HIV post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) and emergency contraception. The chance to address any barriers that interfere with adherence to ARVs among people living with HIV – such as not taking ARVs for fear of an abusive partner finding out their HIV status – is also missed. The failure to address violence among KPs ultimately limits our ability to achieve the 90-90-90 goals.

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Health care workers in South Sudan practice screening for violence during role plays.

This is why much of the VPR work in the context of LINKAGES focuses on building the capacity of project staff — including health care workers and outreach workers — to be proactive in identifying violence among KP individuals via violence screening. If we wait for KPs to disclose violence, we may not hear about it due to the barriers just mentioned. Instead, training providers to ask KP members about violence and building their skills to provide first-line support increases the likelihood that KP victims will get linked to important, time-sensitive post-violence clinical services and may increase uptake of and adherence to HIV care and treatment.

Success in South Sudan

Some LINKAGES countries that are implementing violence screening and response interventions are already showing good results. In South Sudan, health care workers were trained on core concepts related to sex and gender, harmful gender norms, and the connection between violence and HIV. They then developed skills for screening KP individuals for violence and providing first-line support to KP victims, including linking them to health, psychosocial, and legal services. Since the training, Jennifer Iden, GBV coordinator for LINKAGES South Sudan, and the rest of the team have successfully integrated VPR screening and response services into existing HIV prevention, care and treatment services. During the last quarter (July-September 2017), 608 female sex workers were screened for violence by health care workers during mobile clinics. Of those screened, 293 (48 percent) reported experiencing sexual violence in the past three months. In turn, 87 (30 percent) of those reporting sexual violence were eligible for PEP, which means that health care workers identified the sexual violence within 72 hours of the assault. Of the 87 women who were eligible for PEP, 87 (100%) received it and were able to reduce their risk of HIV infection.

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Health care workers are trained to screen KPs for violence.

The LINKAGES project in South Sudan is a success story that illustrates the direct link between violence screening and increasing KP victims’ access to critical HIV prevention services. I hope South Sudan’s success inspires others to integrate VPR activities into their HIV programming for key populations.

Through Bullets and Bombs to Reach Health Care

Written by Cecilia Amaral, Global Health Corps Fellow, IntraHealth International, and Carol Bales, Senior Communications & Advocacy Officer, IntraHealth International

This blog post was originally featured on IntraHealth International’s VITAL blog.


 

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Photos: Alex Collins, Senior Program Officer, IntraHealth International

In conflict areas around the world, health workers like Patrick in South Sudan continue to risk their lives to do their jobs.

“There were guns, bullets, and bombs everywhere,” says Patrick Hakim, a clinical officer in South Sudan.

That was the scene around Juba last July after fighting broke out at the presidential compound between the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and the SPLA in Opposition (SPLA-IO) forces.

Amidst the country’s already horrific and brutal conflict, Patrick says those two weeks were characterized by widespread terror. Many borders, roads, and markets were closed. Patrick and his fellow health workers were afraid of leaving home, of being attacked or stopped at armed check points.

But he did. He went to work.

“I felt compelled to risk my life, get out of my house, and walk to Juba Teaching Hospital,” he says. “Because there were clients I had booked the previous week.”

Patrick is part of an IntraHealth International team supporting USAID’s LINKAGES project, which provides HIV testing, care, and treatment largely to foreign female sex workers—a key population in South Sudan’s fight against HIV. The team distributes condoms and antiretroviral drugs, which require regular follow-up and refilling of prescriptions.

So during the days of the July crisis, Patrick was still receiving calls for HIV services.

Patrick Hakim, LINKAGES Clinical Officer

Patrick Hakim, LINKAGES Clinical Officer

He and his colleagues continued offering some HIV services to their clients and other South Sudanese. The team provided condoms to the female sex workers in Juba town through their peer leaders. And condoms, test kits, and antiretrovirals were made available at the Juba Teaching Hospital and Al-Saba Children’s Hospital, the other main hospital in Juba town.

But many of Patrick’s clients weren’t calling. They were scared, too. Many fled Juba and even South Sudan. Some hid in the bush. And some ran out of food and stopped taking their antiretroviral medications to avoid the side effects.

One client, a sex worker who travelled from Yei to Juba to refill her prescriptions every couple months, was determined to get her medication. She walked through bushes and villages to avoid the roads. The trip that usually took her four hours by bus took her almost four weeks. When she finally reached Juba Teaching Hospital, Patrick says, she had lost a lot of weight, was malnourished, and had a persistent cough. In fact, she could hardly breathe.

But she made it. Patrick can only guess how many others did not.

Disease Doesn’t Wait for War to End

Since civil war broke out in South Sudan in December 2013, tens of thousands of people have been killed and three million people have been displaced. The country has plunged into a humanitarian crisis that has been exacerbated by famine in the northern-central region. The crisis worsened in 2016, and 7.5 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance.

Now millions of people are vulnerable to disease and injury and unable to reach the health care they need. More are dying from vaccine-preventable and treatable diseases, such as measles and cholera—deaths that are directly linked to the lack of basic health services. Women lack skilled birth assistance and access to contraception, and people with HIV/AIDS or tuberculosis have been cut off from life-saving medications.

Only 43% of South Sudan’s health facilities are now functional. More than 100 have closed, and at least 29 have been looted or destroyed since the beginning of the civil war.

In February 2016, a Médecins Sans Frontières medical center in Jonglei state was caught in crossfire. A six-year-old boy was shot and died. Thirty-five other patients were injured. The center was looted of medical equipment and medicines.

In the days of the July crisis, when Patrick’s client was avoiding roads and hiding in the bush, shelling hit the maternity wing of an International Medical Corps hospital within a UN Protection of Civilians site in Juba. Fifty thousand people were suddenly without medical services and humanitarian aid.

Patrick had reason to be scared. Health workers, patients, and facilities are deliberate targets.

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The waiting room of the LINKAGES drop-in center.

Last May, for example, soldiers at a checkpoint in Yei shot a doctor in the stomach while she was driving an ambulance late at night, returning from rushing a pregnant woman for emergency care. She died four days later from her injuries. In September, armed men threatened health officials at gunpoint while ransacking a health center in Lasu. In December, also in Lasu, SPLA-IO forces abducted three health workers during road clashes (they were later released).

And that’s not all. What’s happening in South Sudan exemplifies a continuing trend among conflict-ridden countries.

Impunity Must End

A new report by the Safeguarding Health in Conflict Coalition, Impunity Must End, documents attacks on health care in 23 countries in conflict around the world.

  • In Syria, there were 108 attacks on health facilities and 91 health workers killed.
  • In Afghanistan, there were 119 attacks on health facilities and health workers.
  • In West Bank/Gaza, 162 medical technicians were injured by violence or interference with ambulances.

But documentation of such attacks remains spotty. The report’s numbers may greatly understate the actual extent and severity of these attacks.

And accountability remains almost non-existent. Despite the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 2286 last year, which set out a roadmap to protect health in conflict, practically nothing has been done to enforce and implement it.

Impunity Must End makes concrete recommendations to end these atrocities, including regular reporting by countries to the UN on how they are preventing attacks, investigating those that occur, and holding perpetrators accountable. If member states fail to act, the UN Security Council—which met last week to discuss the resolution again—should initiate thorough investigations and establish accountability procedures. The UN Security Council must act.

It was Patrick’s childhood dream to become a health worker so that others wouldn’t suffer the hardships his family endured due to lack of access to health care. But he and his colleagues need to be safe to save lives. They should not have to be scared to go to work. And no one should have to be scared to seek out health care.

The impunity must end.

Read more about Patrick in this Picture It post.

IntraHealth is a founding member of the Safeguarding Health in Conflict Coalition. IntraHealth leads communications for the coalition and co-authored and edited the new Impunity Must End report. This blog post sites data from the report.

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The ART center at the Juba Teaching Hospital, where LINKAGES clinical staff like Patrick provide HIV services on a weekly basis as support to the existing hospital staff.