Sr. Margaret Hosty, a Sister of St. Louis, is a native of County Roscommon in Ireland. She is coordinator of Grupo AAVE (Association Aids: Support, Life, Hope) an award winning NGO focused on preventing the spread of HIV and AIDS. Margaret co-founded Grupo AAVE in 1995, in Goiânia, Brazil, and has been working with the organisation ever since.
“A mother who is living with HIV must not breastfeed her baby, as there is a strong possibility that the baby will contract HIV from the breast milk,” said Sr. Margaret, “I was shocked to learn at a health council meeting on October 30 that our State of Goiás had failed to fulfill its obligation to supply powdered milk to children who are born to mothers who are poor and living with HIV. We discovered that this problem has been going on since the end of September.”
Margaret has a strong commitment to supporting and empowering those who are poor, marginalised and living with HIV. She feels called by God to do something with people who are strongly stigmatized in Brazilian society because of their HIV and AIDS status. At the same time, as a Sister of St. Louis, Margaret´s work furthers the charism of her congregation “That they may be One” (John 17:21), through her tireless and ongoing efforts to give dignity to those who are discriminated against and are pushed to the margins of society because they live with HIV/AIDS.
“When we got home to AAVE from the meeting, we called the press to denounce this violation of human rights. Two reporters returned our calls and wanted to interview mothers who were suffering from the situation. There was great urgency to report and denounce the problem as soon as possible, as life was at stake. Luckily, we were able to find two mothers who were willing to be interviewed as long as they could remain anonymous,” said Sr. Margaret, “two newspapers published the story on November 5. Later that day a television station wanted to interview a mother and me. I agreed, and thank God had success in finding a third mother (the two who were interviewed the previous day were afraid of being discovered and of retaliation). By noon on November 6, the television broadcast the interview with the mother and with me. Of course, the state Secretary of Health didn’t like that the failure of the state to fulfil its obligation had now gone public. The following day there was a notice in the paper saying the state had bought 4,530 cans of powdered milk.”
“Finally, on November 9, after I contacted the press one more time and the press contacted the Secretary of Health, the powdered milk was available to the 60 new-born babies in our state whose mothers are living with HIV.”
A major challenge Margaret faces in her work in Grupo AAVE is the stigma faced by those who live with HIV and AIDS. One of the objectives of Grupo AAVE is to carry out advocacy. However, because of stigma and discrimination, service users are very reluctant to participate in advocacy events.
A second challenge is misinformation in society about living with HIV in particular the notion that now that treatment is available contracting the virus is no longer a critical matter to worry about. Many people who have contracted the virus are unaware of their status. Grupo AAVE works to bring about early diagnosis of the virus, promoting the message to “Know your Status”.
A third challenge is related to Grupo AAVE´s third objective to support and empower those living with HIV and AIDS. Accessing funds to provide necessary support is an ongoing challenge. In recent years, there is a lack of government support in making funding available to NGOs.
Since its foundation in 1995, Grupo AAVE has had an excellent track record in addressing the needs of people living with HIV and AIDS. This is demonstrated by the recognition and awards consistently conferred on the organization by both national and international organisations. The track record of Grupo AAVE was recognized and celebrated by the State of Goiás with the granting of the Pedro Ludovico Award for its contribution to human rights in 2010, and the Goiás State Government Award in recognition of its successful interventions in “social development and human solidarity” in 2015. At the national level, Grupo AAVE’s track record was recognized with the conferring of the National AIDS Social Responsibility Award in 2008. At the national church level, the contribution of AAVE was recognized by the winning of the Dom Fernando Award in 2009 and again in 2017 for its work in solidarity with the poor. Grupo AAVE was conferred with the United Nations Award for Excellence in Support of Human Rights and Advocacy in 2013. In 2017, Grupo AAVE was one of only 19 NGOs in the whole of Brazil to have a project in Human Rights financed by UNESCO. Such consistent recognition illustrates a highly credible, professional, committed organisation that is considered highly relevant and indispensable by state, national and international authorities.
Since 2005, Grupo AAVE has been contracted by the Brazilian Bishops Conference to coordinate the Church’s regional response to the AIDS pandemic – namely its AIDS Pastoral Ministry programme (APM) which is run across Brazil and aims to support people living with HIV and Aids, and provide accurate information on HIV.
Although many people think that everyone knows how HIV is transmitted, the surprizing and shocking truth is that in Goiânia they do not. This fact contributes to an increase in the number of infections on the one hand, and to an increase in discrimination, stigma and even violation of human rights on the other. Thus awareness-raising within the community is essential. Grupo AAVE raises awareness through the dissemination of accurate information about HIV to communities, schools, church groups, factories, firms, door-to-door visits in poor and disadvantaged peripheral neighbourhoods, and at six mass events including civic, religious, and political events. As part of this effort we also work with the government in the provision of rapid tests during carnival, community festivals, Citizenship week, Independence Day, and World Aids Day.
Aids continues to be an epidemic principally due to a lack of access to treatment and adherence to treatment. People abandon treatment due to depression, fear of having their status discovered, and side effects. In order to promote adherence to treatment and to deal with the reasons for abandoning treatment Grupo AAVE provides a series of holistic services and activities at its support centre, the Grupo AAVE Group, for people who are poor, unemployed, marginalized, stigmatized, with little or no formal education, who are infected or affected by HIV. Such activities include psychological counselling, group therapy, legal assistance, classes in IT and nutrition, arts and crafts, human rights workshops and an income-generating recycling project. Through these services and activities not only will skills be acquired and support for adherence to treatment be provided, but also people living with HIV will have an opportunity to socialize and to share their experiences and difficulties as a result of their status thus reducing their sense of isolation. Grupo AAVE staff visits these same people in their homes or in hospital to better support them, to encourage adherence to treatment and for AAVE staff and volunteers to become more aware of and sensitized to the reality of life for these very poor and marginalize people. Grupo AAVE also advocates on behalf of people living with HIV by participating in health councils at local, municipal and state level, and advocating for the human rights and entitlements of people living with HIV and AIDS.