Half Full…Half Empty – My Six Months as an AVAC Fellow

September 2, 2015

Anna Miti is an AVAC 2015 Advocacy Fellow. This post first appeared on her personal blog.

That old adage about a glass… the half full half empty theory? It always gets me thinking whenever I am in a reflective mood. Such as today when I think of the my Fellowship, of which I am now right in the middle of, six months have passed and six are left to go. In this blog I reflect on the past six months, and also outline what I hope to achieve over the next six so here we go…

What I Have Achieved

  1. Making the jump

    I have “always” been in media, broadcasting in particular. I had a weekly program on national radio by the time I was 21, still in college and studying Mass communication. It is pretty much all I have ever known. Making the jump from being a journalist to an advocate was a daunting task, no matter how prepared I said I was, it was a scary move. I did not know whether I would even make past a month, in spite of my bravado! With the exception of motherhood and marriage I can safely say it was the most challenging thing I had to do in my life. Now I am not just another reporter, but a go-to person for media and HIV prevention issues.

  2. Creating civil society network with an agenda towards HIV prevention

    As a journalists the first thing that you learn is that people don’t really want you in their meetings, whether government, corporate or civil society organisations. It is fair because as a media person my role would be ferret out news, and unfortunately “bad” news sells better than “good news” so all the above mentioned entities have at one time fallen on the bad side of media. To convene a meeting with civil society, of which most of them knew me as Anna the journalist was no mean feat. It was hard to get them to trust that I was not inviting them to a meeting so that I could find a good story, but rather to talk issues close to their hearts.

    In a country where homosexuality is not just shunned but actually criminalised, and sex work is openly regarded as a shame, it was next to impossible to have the Gays and Lesbians Association of Zimbabwe and an organisation which supports sex workers to have a meeting where media was also invited and it actually turned out great. To date I can count over 23 organisations in my network, all of whom agree that PrEP is the way to go and are looking out for the Microbicide trials results. To have journalists who are keen to learn more, not just in order to get a good story, but write and broadcast HIV prevention stories with understanding. Not just local journalists, but to actually push for a regional organisation for journalists working in health all wanting to find out and write about new HIV prevention tools and see the organisation blooming was also a great experience for me. As a network we do not just talk about PreP and other options, but reach out to all our other networks as well.

    The end result has been that PrEP has become part of the Agenda in more forums. The aim of this is to increase awareness in order to create demand for Prep. Our call has been heeded such that PrEP has been inputted to the such as National AIDS Council, which is in the middle of coming up with the Zimbabwe National AIDS strategy policy (ZNASP3), which among other things highlight the importance of the inclusion of sex workers and the LGBTI community as key populations.

  3. Increasing media coverage around new HIV prevention technologies

    Over the last six months I have seen colleagues in the media calling or texting me wanting to be linked to researchers or certain individuals because they were doing a story on the AIDS vaccine or just to find out about what exactly I do. It is even more heartening to see a full page feature on the vaccine trials in Zimbabwe. This was not part of everyday news stories before. It felt good to hear issues of Microbicides being discussed in programs broadcast in Shona and Ndebele, indigenous languages of Zimbabwe.

There are other fun things that happened along the way, my first trip to the United States, being seconded into the ICASA 2015 communications sub-committee, being interviewed on radio instead of being the interviewer, mentoring a journalist for the first time and very important—having my very own blog!

Of course it was not all fun and games, I have learnt quite a few lessons along the way, some painful some… I am still learning. I have had my fair share of disappointing moments, times when I actually felt like quitting. But I`m still here, counting the lessons…

Lessons Learnt

In journalism the means justifies the end, we do not care how you got the story, just get it. In civil society and advocacy the process is just as important. No matter how good the end result is, if the process has some missing elements which aid in transparency, it will be not a good end.

Politics, religion, cultural and environmental situations play big role in achieving targets and goals. They are make or break rules and should be considered all the time, no matter how right your advocacy seems. Failure to negotiate politics, not just of the land but politics of the office, of the mind even family will result in failure.

There is no Shona or Ndebele word for Microbicides—Shona and Ndebele are the most widely spoken local languages in Zimbabwe, trying to translate microbicides without offending anyone is like walking a tightrope!

Sometimes the people we try to teach can actually teach us. I have always been surprised when I try to talk to young women about HIV prevention. They may not have scientific knowledge of biomedical interventions, but they know what they want. The also know solutions to the issues the are facing. They speak with such confidence about their reproductive health that all our assumptions about young women are wrong, like young women can not adhere to PrEP, or that they do not have a clue about what they want. Given the right options young women can take charge of their health. I have actually learnt some things from them.

HIV advocacy can be really frustrating-HIV/AIDS is far from over. We want to end AIDS by 2030 but we have HIV positive people who fail to access mediation. Young people are still being infected with HIV, babies are still being born with HIV and less than half of them get medication in time. Hospitals do not have basics such as paracetamol and relatives of patients are asked to buy their own items such medical sutures in order to get treated. Young women are so vulnerable to HIV infection.

In my work I have heard stories that left me emotionally drained. Like when I met a young woman, all 16 years of age, “married” with two children, one of whom is HIV positive. The young girl was raped by a neighbour and her family forced the rapist to marry the girl when they realised she was pregnant. The stories of stigma, perpetrated by siblings of a 17 year old teenager, born positive, both parents late having succumbed to complications of AIDS, now she is in the care of HIV negative siblings. Some issues just made me angry – like news headlines that read “hooker infects man with AIDS” — in 2015 someone media houses still use such negative words. And what is “AIDS infection”? I have also been frustrated by the response to my advocacy from some civil society players — their negative attitude to PrEP and a been-there-done-that attitude, basically telling me I should stop wasting time.

The Rest of the Glass

In spite of my challenges and taking stock of all that has been, I can only look forward to the next half year. For the next six months of my fellowship I want scale up my advocacy. I want to use my voice for what I believe in. The glass is half full, I just need to drink it… bottoms up!