Meet & Greet: Hirut Tekleab, expert on HIV and livelihoods interventions

March 5, 2014

The past 7 years Hirut has been working for Integrated Service Aids Prevention and Support Organisation (ISAPSO) in Ethiopia. Since a year she is managing the STOP AIDS NOW! project supporting orphans and vulnerable children guardians and other poor and vulnerable people, in one of the slums and high HIV prevalence areas in Addis Ababa. During a project visit we discussed her view on the HIV/AIDS response.

Why did you decide to dedicate your work to improving livelihoods and the life of others?

“First I was working on care and support intervention for PLHIV and OVC (Orphans and Vulnerable Children). This was satisfactory: to support for instance an orphan to go to school. Besides support, it is good to change the life of people sustainably. So, for several years now, we involve PLHIV and OVC guardians in livelihood development as well. We use several approaches like establishing saving and loan schemes, business skills training and improving their market access. We aim to create a sustainable livelihood. That for instance someone living with HIV has some savings available to pay out of pocket expenses like medicines for opportunistic infections.”

Could you illustrate your work with a personal experience?

“There are many experiences that come to mind now. But I remember one lady, her husband passed away because of AIDS. She used to work as a wood collector in the forest near Addis Ababa. A physically exhausting job for hardly any money and these women are often prone to (sexual) abuse when being alone in the forest. This lady has three children, but could not afford to send them to school.

After being enrolled in the programme, using a Self Help Group approach, she was able to quit her wood collector work after one year. With a loan and a business training, she started her own trade selling vegetables. This totally changed her life. By having a small but stable income, she is now able to take care of her children. She spends more time with them, being closer to home, and at the same time can afford now to send all three children to school. Although I can tell you many similar examples, somehow I am always touched when I think of this lady.” 

What are the biggest challenges in this line of work?

“The biggest challenge in livelihood development work is changing the minds of people. Most people don’t have a culture of saving. But experience shows that even the poorest can save, although this is a process and takes time. Through the Self Help Group approach we use, our beneficiaries slowly learn how to save. In the first period that might only be 5 Birr (€0,20) per week. Which is okay, as this way we can cultivate a saving habit. Same is with loans. Some of the beneficiaries wonder why to pay back. These mindsets take time to change.

But at the same time, once a saving culture has been established, I have to say that almost all benefit from this. They might not become rich overnight, but with some savings, opportunities and social support from other members of the Self Help Group, many beneficiaries feel empowered to overcome their problems.

Through STOP AIDS NOW! my organisation is also involved in a linking and learning project on HIV and livelihoods. With 12 organisations we form a community of practice in which we look at different challenges when it comes to HIV and livelihoods development. For example we do research on stigma and discrimination for different income generating activities. The idea is that in 6 months’ time, by doing research, sharing existing practices and experiences from the 12 organisations, and existing literature, we can develop guidelines on this topic, improving the effectiveness of our work." 

Finally, do you think, can income improvement be used as a strategy in HIV prevention?

"Definitely. You can teach people the ins and out of HIV prevention, teach condom use skills, etc. This is a key aspect in HIV prevention, as especially migrants coming from rural areas are quite ignorant in this regard. Focusing on education alone is not enough. In the urban slum area, life is relative expensive. There are a lot of women headed households, who have difficulties to make ends meet. I have often seen women increase their income by engaging in sex work. So I believe in this context it is best is to link both: that HIV education, access to services and livelihood strengthening go side by side."

This article has been published in the STOP AIDS NOW! E-news 
“Income for Prevention” (March 2014)