Founded in 2010, House of our Pride was the first LGBTQ organization in Eswatini. For the past decade, HOOP has striven to provide a vibrant, supportive community for one of Eswatini’s most vulnerable key populations in the fight against HIV and AIDS – men who have sex with men, known in the public health field as MSM. But it wasn’t until 2017 – when HOOP was selected as a partner in the LINKAGES project – that that the organization was able to officially register and rent office space. This was just the beginning of the transformation that HOOP has been able to make with support from LINKAGES and Pact.
Key populations – sex workers, gay men and other men who have sex with men, transgender people and people who inject drugs – are disproportionately affected by HIV. At the same time, the stigma, discrimination and threat of criminal prosecution faced by key populations around the world pose serious barriers to their ability to access quality, rights-based health care. The LINKAGES project (Linkages Across the Continuum of HIV Services for Key Populations Affected by HIV), supported by PEPFAR and USAID, is accelerating the ability of partner governments, key population-led civil-society organizations and private-sector providers to plan and deliver comprehensive HIV prevention, care and treatment services at scale to reduce HIV transmission among key populations and to extend life for those who are HIV-positive. LINKAGES is active in 29 countries and has worked in 35 countries globally.
In Eswatini, Pact is an implementing partner in LINKAGES, helping to strengthen the capacity of local organizations like HOOP.
Dedit Musaasizi, HOOP’s finance and administrative officer, reflected on the support and mentorship Pact provided throughout the LINKAGES project. “I remember when we started, we didn’t have any policies or procedures to guide our organization,” he said, “and our Board didn’t have the capacity to assist us.”
With Pact’s support, HOOP established financial procedures and internal controls, a child protection policy, a human resources manual and other operational documents. Most important, HOOP now has a constitution with a clearly articulated vison and mission.
Through an Integrated Technical and Organizational Capacity Assessment exercise in 2017, HOOP directors collectively defined roles and responsibilities and created a management and organizational chart that continues to help them run the organization more effectively. HOOP staff have also seen a positive shift in their workplace culture. Pact mentored them on soft skills including communication styles, professionalism and the importance of collaboration.
“Before, we were just a group of like-minded individuals with a passion for the rights of the LGBTQ community,” said Professor Shabungu, HOOP’s measurement and evaluation officer. “Now we are a functional team that can more effectively run an organization and meet our targets.”
Programmatically, LINKAGES helped HOOP build an enabling environment for key populations to access essential health care and legal services, said David Maseko, HOOP’s program manager.
“We are serving the entire LGBTQ community of Eswatini,” Maseko said.
Through continued technical support from FHI360, the organization that leads LINKAGES, HOOP brought innovation into their programming to deepen their impact to the wider MSM community. For example, HOOP noticed low uptake of services at the LINKAGES Mobile Clinic due to stigma associated with MSM and other key populations. With small-group sessions and brainstorming, HOOP devised solutions. First, the organization invited clinical personnel to their office to provide services in a private, confidential safe space. Next, HOOP worked with outreach peer educators to form small groups in communities where HIV counselors provide testing and other health services. This method met the MSM clients where they were, physically and psychologically, and offered a discrete and convenient option for HIV testing. HOOP also hired peer energizers, compensating them to encourage MSM within their networks to get tested.
Together these changes significantly increased the number of MSM accessing HIV testing services and treatment. Working with a LINKAGES risk assessment tool, HOOP reached an 11% case-finding rate among MSM, the highest among all of the LINKAGES Eswatini partners.
HOOP staff have also experienced enormous personal growth during their two years working with LINKAGES. Maseko noted that he is much more in touch with the LGBTQ community in Eswatini because of the project, and that his eyes have been opened to the real situation of health and rights, especially in rural areas. This has motivated him to be even more engaged with the outreach teams and has reinvigorated his passion to make a difference. He said his professionalism, communication and leadership skills all have been strengthened.
Many staff members said they now have improved understanding of stakeholder engagement and the power of appropriate and strong messaging during advocacy efforts. Program management skills were also a commonly mentioned improvement, with the introduction of an M&E structure, work planning systems, time management and organizational financial management. HOOP’s new internal financial procedures position them well to continue receiving donor funding and to expand their services and impact.
Perhaps most exciting are systemic changes HOOP is now witnessing in Eswatini, including decreased stigma and discrimination toward the LGBTQ community, surely thanks in part to sensitization efforts by HOOP and other LINKAGES partners.
Maseko shared a story from Malkerns, Eswatini, that illustrates this well. The police commander there used to be known as anti-LGBTQ. Then LINKAGES Key Population Ambassadors educated him about what it means to be LGBTQ and the legal support that the LGBTQ community needs. Soon he invited the ambassadors to speak with the entire station. Now, across the country, every police post has a designated officer for cases involving key populations, providing them critical protections.
Change is happening on the household level, too. HOOP outreach workers often talk with parents and families about LGBTQ issues, including families that have rejected or otherwise mistreated children for being LGBTQ. This has changed many attitudes. For example, a father from Siphofaneni who had kicked his son out for being gay now volunteers with HOOP as a community champion, helping other families to accept their LGBTQ children with love.