In China, Grass-Roots Groups Take On H.I.V./AIDS Outreach Work

Published: January 2, 2013

GUANGZHOU, China — As he waited to give blood for an H.I.V. test one recent afternoon, Le, a 25-year-old marketing professional, explained why he was there. “I was aware of the consequences” of not using a condom, he said, “but somehow I didn’t know how to say no.”

Le, a gay man who would give only his first name, was being tested at the Lingnan Health Center, an organization run largely by gay volunteers, whose walls are adorned with red AIDS ribbons and a smiling condom mascot. In the past, Le went to hospitals to be tested, he said, but the stigma of being a gay man in China made the experience particularly harrowing.

“I’d always be concerned about what the doctors would think of me,” Le said. “Here we’re all in the same community, so there’s less to worry about.”

Le is one of thousands of gay men in this bustling city of 13 million people who are benefiting from a pioneering experiment that supporters hope will revolutionize the way the Communist Party deals with nongovernment groups trying to stop the spread of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.

Encouraged by the new slate of leaders who came to power in November, civil society activists hope the model taking shape here in the prosperous southern province of Guangdong, which has long served as a petri dish for economic reform, will be replicated nationally, not just in the fight against disease but also on issues like poverty, mental health and the environment.

While China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention has allowed community organizations across the country to participate in disease testing programs since 2008, in practice those efforts remain patchy. But in November, just before World AIDS Day the following month, the grass-roots movement received a high-profile endorsement from the incoming prime minister, Li Keqiang.

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