Loveness Bowa-Gunda, a health care service provider who works with Youth Net and Counselling (Yoneco), was recently awarded the Me and My Healthcare Provider Award at the 22nd International Aids Conference in the Netherlands.
She was recognised for offering comprehensive and stigma-free information and services on HIV related issues to sex workers.
“It was a humbling experience to get the award. The work that I do is already so rewarding, looking at the number of lives that are touched by their stories changed in a positive way. So, receiving the award was a challenge to do more to reach out to those in need of similar support services. This, alongside being certified as anti-retroviral (ART) and sexually transmitted infections (STI) health provider, constitutes some of the greatest moments that I cherish, which keep pushing me to do more for people in need of my expertise,” she points out.
The health care service practitioner adds that being able to convince Machinga District Health Office (DHO) and the HIV Unit in Malawi to certify Machinga Drop in Centre (DIC) as ART dispensary site for key populations is another of her key achievements.
Her role at the Drop in Centre entails providing pre and post HIV screening counselling to clients. She also attends to gender-based-violence (GBV) cases.
“With regard to GBV cases, we seek workable solutions for the victims and we usually collaborate with the Malawi Police Service [Victim Support Unit],” she adds.
A registered nurse and midwife who holds a Bachelor of Science in nursing and midwifery from Kamuzu College of Nursing (KCN), Bowa-Gunda says she has her mother to thank for being who she is.
“Although she did not go far with her education; got married and bore many children, she never wanted to see any girl fail in her education nor get married early and be heavily dependent. She encouraged me to believe in myself and aim high.
“She emphasised on the power of knowledge. I remember how she bravely took up her family role by supporting my father [who was a medical assistant] to educate all ten of us in my family. Hers has always been a ‘never give up’ spirit.”
Eighth born in her family, the health practitioner grew up at Kapiri Village, Traditional Authority (T/A) Kachindamoto in Dedza.
“I went to primary school at Kapiri Local Education Authority (LEA), and my secondary at New Era Private Secondary School. After attaining the Malawi School Certificate of education (MSCE), I proceeded to Malawi College of Health Sciences where I read for a diploma in nursing and midwifery. From there, I worked as a nurse in the pediatric ward and intensive care unit at Zomba Central Hospital,” explains the 33-year-old who was born at Mua Mission Hospital in Dedza.
However, she decided to upgrade her studies and went to KCN to pursue the Bachelor’s Degree.
Throughout primary and secondary school, she wanted to work in the agriculture sector, only to change her mind after getting motivated by a nurse at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital (QECH) in Blantyre.
“The nurse really took care of my in-law when she was ill and admitted there. She was very caring, kind and polite; and I decided I wanted to be like her by becoming a nurse,” she narrates.
Bowa-Gunda notes that HIV prevalence rate among sex workers in the country is very high (hovering around 62.7 percent); and this is higher than that of the general population which floats around 10.2 percent.
“If this group is left due to stigma perpetuated by we health workers, then the fight against HIV and Aids may not be as successful. This calls for attitude changes by health workers towards the key populations [men who have sex with other men and sex workers for instance]. Stigma and discrimination, whether by us or other members of the society must end,” she cautions.
She argues that when it comes to HIV and Aids, life is like a cobweb.
“While we stigmatise these key populations, our cousins, brothers, uncles, husbands and sisters are going after their services, thereby, locking the problem in our midst. Therefore, we are better off taking care of one another than perpetuating stigma and discrimination,” she advises.
From the onset, Bowa-Gunda says she realised that to reach out to sex workers, she needed to be their friend and confidant, providing them with non-judgmental and discrimination free services and a conducive environment.
“I realised that this would easily encourage them to express themselves. Through it all, I have learnt that the needs of key populations are as good as the needs of everyone else and this has been the driving force for me to serve them. This approach has helped me reduce barriers faced by key populations in accessing, enrolling and getting retained in HIV treatment and care services,” she says.
However, she maintains that there are many challenges in health service provision and she considers the mobility of sex workers as the main one.
“Most of them [sex workers] tend to be too mobile, making it difficult for us to monitor them on various indicators. Another challenge is the attitude of some health care providers towards sex workers, which makes them shun health facilities and treatment as they tend to think that every other service provider will treat them with similar attitude.
“And sometimes we have faced with the shortage of sexually transmitted infections (STI) drugs. Another dimension is that people think programmes such as the one we are working on, is promoting wayward behaviour. We, thus, receive disparaging remarks sometimes when in our catchment areas,” she explains.
To young girls who aspire to do nursing, she says: “Nursing is a very satisfying profession because it gives you an opportunity to be of service to fellow humans. In life, there are many rewards, but being able to serve and save lives is more rewarding and goes to a greater extent to define humanity. So, work hard in school and join us in the profession or pursue any of your dreams to the end.”
In conclusion, she says, key populations are human beings like everyone else. They need love and care. No one should be left behind in the fight against HIV and Aids.
“I personally believe in the 90:90:90 target and we can have a stigma and discrimination-free society that enables everyone else to contribute to the socio-economic development of our beloved country, Malawi.”