Advocacy and Representation: Empowering Communities in the Fight Against HIV and AIDS
Lhak-Sam, since its establishment, has been at the forefront of effectively representing the interests and needs of individuals infected and affected by HIV and AIDS across all levels of society. Our organization plays a pivotal role in influencing policies, programs, procedures, and legislation that creates barriers to national HIV prevention, testing, treatment, and retention initiatives. We firmly believe in tailoring the national response to local contexts, prioritizing a targeted and people-centered approach to foster ownership, effectiveness, and sustainability, ensuring that no one is left behind from essential services.
One significant milestone in the fight against HIV and AIDS was the government’s institution of the HIV triple policy of test, treat, and retreat programs in 2017. This policy allows individuals diagnosed with HIV to initiate the Dolutegravir-based fixed-dose combination of antiretroviral drugs regardless of their CD4 count, resulting in minimal short-term side effects and improved treatment adherence. Furthermore, in 2020, the introduction of the HIV self-testing program through oral swabs provided people with greater availability and access to HIV testing choices.
Addressing other important health concerns, we are proud to have witnessed the first-ever observation of International Hepatitis B Day by the government in 2016. This event raised awareness about Hepatitis B testing and treatment, significantly contributing to public health. Additionally, in 2019, the policy on the triple elimination of mother-to-child transmission of HIV, Hepatitis B, and Syphilis was instituted and validated, enabling easier access to services for these three diseases simultaneously.
Our commitment to fostering inclusivity and understanding has also extended to coordinating the LGBT project in 2014, leading to the humanization of LGBT people in the country in 2015. Through mutual cooperation and collaboration with LGBT communities, we have built a movement that has facilitated face-to-face interactions between the public and the LGBT community. This has effectively promoted public understanding, acceptance, and reduced risks and vulnerabilities. Furthermore, the 2020 amendment to Section 213 of the Penal Code decriminalizing consensual same-sex sexual activity significantly reduced fear and self-stigma among the LGBT community, promoting pride, human dignity, and equal access to services.
In line with our values of partnership and empowerment, we have actively collaborated with the LGBT community, now named Pride Bhutan, to create the Red Purse Network (RPN), a self-help group for sex workers in the country. This collaboration has resulted in enhanced networking and outreach among sex workers, leading to regular service utilization.
Moving forward, Lhak-Sam remains dedicated to evidence-based advocacy to improve the livelihoods of disadvantaged PLHIV and their children. We will continue to advocate for the concept that an undetectable amount of HIV in the blood equals untransmittable (U=U), and will initiate dialogues with the government for national validation of U=U. Additionally, we will strive to advocate for the institution of Work Place HIV Policies in workplaces across the country.
However, we acknowledge that several challenges hinder our advocacy efficacy, primarily due to capacity limitations, human resources, and financial constraints. Addressing these challenges will be crucial to achieving our desired outcomes in a timely manner.