Culture / Health & Environment / Politics & Economics

Untapped Potential of Art in HIV/AIDS Work

Untapped Potential of Art in HIV/AIDS work picture

By Marguerite Ward, World Policy Journal 

The international community is at a critical point in stopping the spread of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). Infection rates are down and global funding is up, pointing to a successful global response plan. But one key component in permanently ending HIV/AIDS has yet to gain recognition in global policy plans. Supporting arts-based community programs is a relatively unknown, but highly effective method of stopping the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Drawing on the needs of local populations, members of at-risk communities are using music, art, theater, and song to educate their peers about HIV/AIDS. For rural communities, this radically different approach has proven to be effective and sustainable, working in ways that traditional methods of outreach don’t. Access to reading materials, temporary health clinics, or educational lectures is severely limited for non-urban communities. Often this is because of the difficulty in traveling (often walking) far distances, low literacy rates, language barriers, and the imperative to put food on the table. For those who are able to access HIV/AIDS resources, visiting a community health clinic to get a free test or form of birth control is often looked down upon.

Mixing art, theater, and song with HIV/AIDS education offers de-stigmatized, interactive, and uplifting opportunities for at-risk communities to access valuable resources. It provides a solution to what UNAIDS called in its 2013 report, “The persistent challenges to effective HIV prevention for adolescents and young people…inadequate access to high-quality, youth-friendly HIV and sexual and reproductive health services.”

Arts-based HIV/AIDS projects also fill a gap in care by offering psychological therapy not traditionally given priority in health plans. For Dr. Manoj Kurian, MD, Senior Manager of Policy and Advocacy for the International AIDS Society, art is critical to international health work. “Art allows open dialogue on a deeply personal and difficult subject. It allows a person who is affected to start a conversation without people staring at him or her, like when you stand up and speak,” Kurian said. For many, art offers a safe and therapeutic way to depict the suffering, confusion, and hope of dealing with HIV/AIDS.

It also offers a means of income for communities struggling with poverty, disease and unemployment. According to Kurian, several communities in south and east Africa create small ornaments out of paper or beads and sell them internationally. Through their sales, these communities are able to support themselves and work to fund health clinics.

For people who buy these products from across the globe, it creates a sense of solidarity. More than that, owning or wearing the art is advocacy. “Even in our own offices at The International AIDS Society, we have art made by those impacted by HIV/AIDS. It reminds us of their suffering. It inspires our hard work and deepens our commitment,” said Kurian.

One young woman, working closely with a community in northern Uganda was able to start The Hip Hop Therapy Project, a successful arts education program that has impacted the lives of countless young adults. By de-stigmatizing the local HIV youth clinic, teaching kids positive behaviors, and building lasting community ties, The Hip Hop Therapy Project is a model program for creative HIV/AIDS work.

Melissa Adams first came to northern Uganda in 2004 with the International Center for Research on Women to work with local organizations on HIV prevention. The country was still in the midst of civil war. She saw that there were very few safe spaces for young adults and children to have fun and enjoy themselves while learning. Meanwhile, Adams developed strong connections with the adult leaders and children from the community. It was this combination – an understanding of community needs and personal ties that helped her create one of the most innovative and promising HIV/AIDS projects in northern Uganda.

In the shadow of civil war, 90% of the population was displaced. The population was living in abject poverty amid the war’s destruction and lingering violence. But Adams found one community member who had started a local after-school program that provided play therapy to children. The program gave children the chance to interact with song, art, and drama to cope with the lasting effects of war.

At the same time, Adams met a group of young people in Kampala, Uganda’s capital, who were a part of Breakdance Project Uganda. The project offered free breakdance classes to anyone interested. It provided a sense of community, a safe-space. The children in northern Uganda wanted a program like just this. “[The children of northern Uganda] told me they wanted to dance, they wanted to breakdance and dance to hip hop,” Adams said.

Adams combined the two ideas, working with The Gulu Youth Centre, a youth center focused on HIV prevention and care, to secure space for the kids to dance. This was the beginning of The Hip Hop Therapy Project. Almost instantly, Adams saw a change in the community. “The center was de-stigmatized. Children and young adults could go there not just for an HIV test or a condom, but they would go to dance. They became comfortable just being there,” Adams said.

That relationship between The Gulu Youth Centre and The Hip Hop Therapy Project has been maintained. Besides providing access to information and resources, the dance project also gives young adults the chance to engage in positive activities, and not in unhealthy or unsafe behaviors. Adams’ work shows the kind of on-the ground, community-building work that creates sustainable and effective HIV/AIDS programs.

“What I’m most proud of is that I helped create a resource that the children have taken ownership of,” said Adams. The children take meeting notes, have sign-in sheets, and scheduled practices.

“Even more than that, the program has created lasting friendships. Some people have been involved with it for over ten years now,” Adams continued. Currently there are anywhere from eighty to one hundred active members, ranging from ages 10 to 20.

Community-driven and often qualitative in their success, arts-based programs that fight the spread of HIV/AIDS are difficult to collect data from. However, increased funding to promising community leaders can enable data collection and increased communication with agencies providing support and oversight. As international policy groups adopt creative community-based programs into their response plans, methods for measuring success can become standardized.

In its 2013 report, UNAIDS reported that new HIV infections had dropped 33% since 2001. Reaching out to rural communities in ways that are most effective for them is critical to continuing this promising trend. Arts-based community work offers communities a de-stigmatized, interactive and sustainable way to keep HIV/AIDS education and care alive. With increased funding and management, international policy organizations can successfully capture the power of communities to creatively solve problems.



Marguerite Ward is an Editorial Assistant at World Policy Journal.

[Photo Courtesy of Adam Cohn]


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