Over the past few weeks, people living with HIV/AIDS (PWA) in Lesotho have been preparing for the launch of their long-anticipated national network - the first in the tiny mountain kingdom.
Although the need for a body to coordinate and represent Lesotho's various PWA structures has long been recognised, little had been done about it until a technical working group was established last year, UNAIDS Country Coordinator Tim Rwabuhemba told PlusNews.
Since then, the working group - bringing together various sets of HIV-positive Basotho and NGOs - had been responsible for much of the legwork in setting up the network.
Bakoena Chele, a member of the technical working panel and secretary general of Positive Action, told PlusNews that during workshops and meetings conducted in the kingdom's 10 districts, it had been discovered that, contrary to popular belief, there were "many, many PWA groups being formed on the ground".
"They are popping up in each and every district, but they need support and guidance ... nobody knows about them." Once launched, Chele said, the network would set up a database of all these organisations.
The next step would be to finalise the network's draft constitution incorporating feedback from the districts, and agree on a date for the formal launch.
Rwabuhemba admitted that there were "a number of reasons, not specific to Lesotho", that had led to delays in getting it off the ground.
"There were inherent fears that this network would shadow the work of different existing organisations, as well as fears that the network would attract more attention and resources," he explained.
Chele commented that rivalries between different organisations had also slowed down the process. Nevertheless, pressure from the grassroots, as well as the donor community, had now forced people to put aside their "petty politics".
"People are crying for this ... saying it has taken too long, and it is high time we had an umbrella body that will be a better voice for all of us," he added.
A national network, essentially "an advocacy body", Rwabuhemba said, would represent all PWA stakeholders in lobbying for increased resources and the greater involvement of people living with the virus.
The absence of such an organisation, Chele noted, had fuelled the spread of stigma in the kingdom, as HIV-positive people were still not visible in Lesotho's society. "Hopefully with the network in place, we will be better equipped to stand up and be fearless about the stigma we encounter."
But Rwabuhemba warned that the recent experiences of some PWA organisations in the region could not be ignored.
Last year South Africa's Auditor-General found that many AIDS organisations funded by state money had not adequately accounted for the money they received. In particular, concerns have been raised about the National Association of People living with HIV/AIDS (NAPWA), which received more than R5 million (US $814,000) from the government over two years, but which, according to news reports, has been forced to close many of its provincial offices, leaving staff unpaid.
COCEPWA, an organisation supporting HIV-positive people in Botswana at seven centres throughout the country, was earlier this year forced to close after donors withdrew their funding, citing inadequate monitoring capacity in the NGO.
"We wanted to learn from this and avoid it right from the start," Rwabuhemba explained. Consequently, during the formation of Lesotho's national network, it had been crucial to define its role and capabilities, to ensure that whatever was expected of the organisation would not be "over and above the capacity".
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