Pat (not her real name) had been living with HIV for seven years—five of which she was taking life prolonging ARVs—when she suddenly became pregnant. Her doctor referred her to a clinic with explicit instruction to get the pregnancy terminated.
Like most women in Thailand and around the globe, there was very little Pat could do to avoid or keep the pregnancy. She says lack of access to appropriate contraceptives left her vulnerable to the unintended pregnancy. Also, little knowledge about what a woman can do to prevent transmitting HIV to the child left her with very little choice.
Pat went to the clinic referred by her doctor, only to be referred to another clinic, and yet another clinic, because the abortion service she sought was not available. Finally, she found a doctor that could perform the abortion at the cost of $270 (U.S.). But there was a precondition: the abortion would be followed by sterilization to prevent any future pregnancy.
The fact of the matter is, with access to treatment widely available in Thailand, Pat did not have to go through this harrowing experience. According to Pat, lack of integration of reproductive health (RH) and HIV/AIDS services in her country, made her jump around like a mouse in search of a solution.
A story, like the one above, is not easy to forget, and can be utilized as a catalyst for action by NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and decision-makers to avoid the same problem repeating itself within society.
Through such stories, decision makers can be made aware of the gaps and constraints that exist in sexual reproductive health and HIV/AIDS programs. Oftentimes, program managers and lobbyists make the mistake of simply quoting statistics at the expense of emphasizing the human experience behind the figures.
Engaging the hearts and minds of decision makers with human stories has immense power to influence change. Advocacy is about influencing change in policy and legislation through highlighting the day-to-day experiences of people affected by existent policies and programs. Through the stories, fallacies of current policies and programs can be underscored.
For centuries, human beings have cherished the art of telling and hearing stories. It is a form of communication that cuts across many cultures. Only by unearthing the stories of people negatively affected by current policies and programs can there be greater awareness and understanding of limitations of programs as well as the needs of the most affected communities.
As the story above reveals, women and girls in Thailand, like in many parts of the world, are more vulnerable to HIV than their sexual partners. Women also lack access to appropriate services. However, the Thailand government lauds itself for providing access to treatment without taking measures to address program limitations. While it is commendable that the Thailand government has done a lot to improve access to treatment, women's stories show that the thinking behind the policy and programs needs to shift to take into account women's unique needs.
The process of face-to-face advocacy, therefore, which involves the telling of personal stories allows for non-confrontational dialogue to develop, empowering participants to open up on taboo subjects like sex and sexuality. Advocacy rooted in real experience has power and legitimacy that cannot be ignored, and helps NGOs to close gaps that they identify within the community. In fact, politicians themselves are in the business of telling stories but tend to be far-removed from the realities that exist at the community level.
It is therefore imperative for politicians to pay attention to stories that emerge from the grassroots. Overall, women's stories need more outlets in order to influence the much needed changes in policy and programs.