East Timor: Leading by Example in the Fight Against HIV

“I don’t want to set a bad example for the people in my community and to know your [HIV] status is only good! Testing is the only way to know for sure,” says Antonio Guterres, a district administrator in the small Asian country of East Timor (Timor Leste). On World AIDS Day, Guterres put his words into action by becoming his country’s highest-ranking official to take an HIV test publicly.

For two years, Catholic Relief Services in East Timor has been working with local partners, including Catholic sisters, to prevent HIV transmission or to care for those who have the virus. In the country’s capital, Dili, CRS helped build a rest house called Uma Nazarete (“House of Nazareth”) that is run by the Missionary Sisters of the Holy Spirit. The home provides shelter, food and other assistance for HIV-positive people who travel to the capital from outlying districts for their monthly check ups and anti-retroviral treatment.

East Timor

District Administrator Antonio Guterres stands with CRS staffer Regina Amaral after taking a public HIV test during World AIDS Day celebrations in Baucau, East Timor. Photo by CRS staff

With money from the Global Fund, CRS began the Smart & Safe HIV prevention project, which targets at-risk men and strives to make education and counseling “male-friendly.” The program emphasizes partner reduction, with tailored ‘Be Faithful’ messages for older and married men, and a strong focus on abstinence for young single men.

“Our approach has really been successful,” says Michael Johansson, CRS Technical Advisor for HIV/AIDS in East Timor. “It’s given many beneficiaries the strength to make important, life-changing decisions and lead healthier lives.”

However, prevention messages weren’t always reaching people, especially those who didn’t know that they were at risk. For example, many wives and partners of at-risk men don’t always understand that they too might contract HIV; many are unaware of their partner’s unsafe behaviors.

So for World AIDS Day, CRS mobilized the Timorese community to learn more about the disease and how to prevent it. Government officials took an HIV awareness motorcade through the country’s second-largest city, Baucau, and attended a special Catholic Mass. The officials also took part in an HIV quiz show held by the city’s diocese.

The day’s final event took place at a local hospital, where a number of participants—including government officials and journalists—were publicly tested for HIV.

“We wanted to fight the stigma some people saw in going to testing clinics,” says Johansson. “The general public made assumptions about who was going to be tested. We wanted to change that, which is why the turnout on World AIDS Day was so good.”

Guterres says he’s very glad he got tested, and encourages his constituents to follow his example. “I am thankful that I tested negative and that encourages me to take care of myself and my family,” he says. “But I also want to make sure that we take care of each other in this community. Know your status because that’s how we can care for each other.”

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