Many Caribbean citizens island hop in search of a better life but migration comes with its own complications. Very often these include reduced access to healthcare including HIV prevention, treatment and support. An initiative in the Bahamas aims to reach the Haitian community there by bringing services and information directly to them. The Haitian Chapter of Real Men Ministry International, an affiliate of Bahamas Faith Ministries, debuted the programme in a community on the eastern side of New Providence earlier this month. UNAIDS Bahamas collaborated with the group to offer technical support so that voluntary counselling and testing for HIV are part of the response. They also helped secure a small PEPFAR grant for the project.
“The main challenges that Haitians in the Bahamas face are stigma and discrimination. Many in the community don’t have legal status, don’t speak English and don’t assimilate into the culture very well. Sometimes the manner of staff at health centres isn’t welcoming,” explains Sandra Smith, UNAIDS Officer for the Bahamas.
Daniel Volmy, President of Real Men’s Haitian Chapter, corroborates: “Often when they go to the health facility, the treatment they get is not conducive to returning. They are asked to provide evidence of their status. So although the system should offer healthcare no matter what, it becomes uncomfortable for them to go.”
The project’s approach is to partner with faith-based organisations that have a presence in the respective communities. Proximity and trust aren’t the only incentives for people to attend. The programme offers activities for children, inducements for participating like phone cards and the familiarity of fellow Haitians delivering information in Kreyol.
HIV isn’t addressed in isolation as testing for blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels are also on offer. There is a minor ailments clinic as well. Rapid HIV tests are accompanied by pre and post-test counselling which are done by stafff from the National HIV Centre. Persons who test positive are referred to the HIV centre for follow-up or, if necessary, to start treatment.
“I don’t think the population is well informed about HIV,” says Volmy, himself a Haitian living in the Bahamas. “There’s still a lot of stigma attached to HIV and potentially someone wouldn’t come to an HIV event because of that. As community leaders we are approaching the issue carefully and strategically by creating a situation that doesn’t scare people away and makes it possible for them to get information, learn their status and get treatment if they need it."
Volmy says that while many Bahamians access health information through the radio, the best way to reach the Haitian community is through churches and communities. Smith agrees that faith-based and community-based organisations are integral to reducing the Bahamas’ high rates of HIV.
“The national HIV program is stretched. My opinion is that we need all hands on deck when it comes to HIV,” she says. Volmy adds that the organisation would like to take the intervention “wherever there is a Haitian in the Bahamas”.
Photo caption: Daniel Volmy (from left) President of Real Men Ministry's Haitian Chapter, Margarette Lemaire (centre), Anthonio Rodrigue, Haitian Ambassador to the Bahamas and Jacques Cadet, Vice President of the Real Men Ministry Haitian Chapter.