One on one with Golda Grace Asante | Many have lauded her work at the Ghana AIDS Commission for various reasons.
Her knowledge, skill in displayed during delivery of presentations, her passion and many more.
She has been described as the “Vice President of HIV and AIDS” and her voice has been replete on several radio and television stations across the country.
Now wonder she won the overall best worker, Senior Category at the 2015 awards given by the Commission to staff.
The success story of a continuous reduction in prevalence in the Eastern Region can not be told without her. It therefore came as a shock to many when her exit from the Ghana AIDS Commission was announced.
Some shed tears and still do, many journalists couldn’t believe the news, students in the Senior High Schools especially in the Eastern Region of Ghana would simply miss her.
I present to you an unedited first part of my interview with Grace Golda Asante.
This interview couldn’t as well end without sad imotions from the champion of positive response to HIV. Read on……
SG: Good afternoon and good to see you again, It’s like you are no more at the Ghana AIDS Commission officially.
SG: What happened?
Golda: Well, ermmm, I have been working with the Ghana AIDS Commission for a long time,…ermmm….for the past six years I was seconded from the local government service to them.
Normally, secondment is two years and one additional year. So after three years, because of our hard work and our dedication, the Commission requested that, we continue working with them, also they were finding it difficult getting clearance and so they were depending on seconded staff, that is why I had to stay a bit more which is quite unusual but it tells you that we were doing a lot, and so our services were needed.
And so after six months, they got clearance and before then, I have also had my promotion to the position of a Director and so once you are a director at the Local Government Service, we don’t have many women as Directors at the Local Government Service, and it was obvious that the demand of my service was very very needed, and it was high as well, so I made up my mind to come back to the Local Government Service, that is my parent organization, to continue my good work and so that is why I have exited the Ghana AIDS Commission.
SG: Of course definitely not good news for many people especially the media with whom you have interacted so well over the years but lets talk about your award and then we’ll come back to your work at the GAC, is it coincidental?
Golda: I don’t really think so, I think that over the years we have done a lot, even in 2015, I was adjudged the best worker for the year, senior category, so it tells you that over the years we have been building on the good work we are doing and so well, they felt that with my exit, they had the opportunity to really acknowledge people who have over the years distinguished themselves and pushed the national response to HIV and AIDS, they couldn’t have done that without recognizing the good roles we have played over the years:
Especially in strengthening the decentralized response to HIV and AIDS and you know…. some of the good things that we have done marshaling a lot of resources technical, financial, and then human as well to respond to the HIV epidemic.
SG: Obviously, for all those who have worked around you and your team, some would say this is even long overdue. But one thing that stands out in the work you have done with your team, till your exit, is how you were able to move the media to really carry on the message, it was as if you have used the media to replace a lot of the NGOs who were receiving funding to work in the area of HIV and AIDS, and we do know that, that kind of funding isn’t available anymore. How did you do that?
Golda: Okay, thank you, like you rightly said, the way we have responded to the AIDS or HIV epidemic right from the beginning, years ago, you know….. at every point in time, we are changing our strategy.
So we started with awareness and I normally refer to it as the noise time, where everywhere you will see the floats and everywhere we were talking about HIV.
And it worked for us because we needed to create the awareness. Then we moved a bit from awareness to behaviour change and interventions, and when we got there, we realized that the funds were reducing and so we have been doing targeted programming, where we target either a population, location or something and then we provide services, but if you look at where we started and the strength in our finance and you compare it to now, it is like things have drastically changed, and the funding is becoming something.
It is scarce now, and so, we had a lot of civil society organizations, local NGOs, community based organizations working those times, but as I have already explained, things were changing.
At first we used to have like twenty NGOs working in a community. Now we don’t even have one. But before 2014 we had like two organizations working in each community.
Now the money is not forth coming, and so we needed to strategise. So you realize that not much is been heard apart from what the Technical Support Units were doing with the Ghana Health Service.
There is a big gap when is comes to the role of Civil Society Organizations because since 2014 the Ghana AIDS Commission has not had money to engage them in Community Education, however, we are on the ground, we are community people and we see the kind of things going on.
Now people even think that HIV is no more, people are into casual sex, people are into multiple concurrent partnership, people are into all kinds of things, including female sex work and Men who have sex with men and who are also bisexuals as well, and so if you look at the kind of things happening in terms of other indiscipline in terms of sex and sexual intercourse, you realize that we were sitting on a time bomb and we needed to do something.
And so, that is why I decided that I needed to rally some media persons who have a passion for health and HIV interventions, so for the past two years they have been there for me and fortunately we were blessed with US Embassay and PEPFAR for that matter and they came to support us and so even though I had some interaction with media guys and so almost every week they were doing something for me, you hear my voice here, you hear my voice there, trust me they were so excellent and that is what has kept the Eastern Regional Response to AIDS.
And with PEPFAR coming in, PEPFAR tried to train about twelve of them and so we chose those who have been supporting the response, we brought on board a few others, I was part of the training, we tried to do some strong advocacy for them to know the money wasn’t forth coming and we didn’t have money but they should take it as part of their corporate social responsibility and even though I didn’t get all the twelve people working, I think ten of them distinguished themselves, radio, print, online TV and they took special interest and they took special interest and delight in our work.
And so every week they will call, different topics, the importance of Knowing your HIV status, the 90-90-90, Basic facts about HIV , prevention strategies , what are the opportunities for people when they test positive, how can they be retained in care, importance of the anti retrovirals, and this work, if you don’t have passion, even as a technical coordinator or a focal person, you cannot do it, because it is work that you are not being paid for, to sit down and to plan what you would say for a week without repeating yourself.
This one is coming, that one is calling, and you don’t want to repeat yourself, it takes a lot of work, but because of our passion we did that, we planned very well, we know whom we are talking to say, Rite fm about, we know what we are talking to Eastern fm about, ermm radio one, Bryt fm, Ghana Health News, you know….
All of them were on board and it has really worked for us. The other thing too is that, they had networks and so if www.ghanahealthnews.com puts something online, other people will also take it, and then others will see it and take it, others had colleagues in other regions who would take their works and so it was like in a day I had to prepare myself that I would talk to about three or four media houses including other people outside Eastern Region, and that is how we see progress in the work we we were doing.
Because the NGOs are not working. They, you need to give them money to work, but the radio stations have wide listener-ship and coverage, so if you engage them, you know that your message will get to so many people, so, in effect this is how we engage the media.
Of course we can’t say we replaced the CSOs with the media but of course the media had held the fort for the Eastern Regional Response to HIV and AIDS
SG: Okay, so I was at the National HIV and AIDS Research Conference and when the Annual Sentinel Report was been presented, the work you have done really showed up, the figures spoke something, it was very loud and clear, now just this year we are hearing that the rate at which young people are getting infected, I am talking about new infections among young people have gone up, what happened?
Golda: That was a national figure but I don’t doubt it because I have a special program in schools and my interactions with students over the past one year since last year, you know we have been working with, but we started a special program targeting them, and we started it last year September and we have been to many schools and trust me, my interaction with them, we need to get up and do something, we really need to because……I am not surprised that new infections among them is increasing because……ermmm there isn’t much education on HIV and AIDs, not much education on that, and even if……you see, as part of their school lessons, especially the science students, they talk about HIV and AIDS but that is different, what they learn in school is for exam purposes.
For behaviour change, you need to take it to a different level and that is what is missing. And in effect even education, I mean general education on HIV has gone down, so what do you expect so I always tell people that the mode of transmission of HIV, the major route of HIV infection is unprotected sex with an infected person.
And so the major route is the weakest part of man, everybody is having sex, it is a different thing to talk about sex in marriage, that is a different thing all together, but when it comes to sexual intercourse, every one is having sex, and nowadays even eight years and nine year olds are having sex, I have pupils in class four and class five who are sexually active.
And so if you look at their sexual life, adolescents, their sexual life and you compare to the kind of education and knowledge which can translate into behaviour change, it is either not there or it is very small, so what do you expect, that is where we are now.
And the other thing is how adults are even feeding or taking undue advantage of young girls and having sex with them and even in the schools it is something else, when you interact with student girls, how male teachers are on them, it is terrible, and that is why I support the recent action that Ghana Education Service took by sacking ten teachers and some two or three who are non teaching staff and I support them and for me, it is long overdue, because you see these young girls 13, 14, 15 years in senior high and teachers are threatening them, if you don’t do this we will fail you and all that, even in the tertiary institutions, look at the Ashanti region, where the students were bold enough to testify, by the time we realized instead of them to be protected, their pictures were all over in the social media.
It is so so disheartening, so even their self confidence, we try to kill it because you see, if they report, the the way the atmosphere is so stigmatizing, and intimidating such that, these young girls can not come out to testify. And when they testify, what happens, GES will just post them to another district.
And so what happened over the past few weeks where teachers have been sacked, i think that we need to see more of those things, justice must be fast for these girls, and until we do that, these teachers will just be sleeping with girls.
These teachers will just be sleeping with girls and students, because of the things they have to go through they will just keep quite, I think that education has gone down, not just education, but appropriate education, which is age appropriate and culturally appropriate, it means that, wherever they are, we should look at where they are, we should look at the environment, we should loot at the atmosphere and provide them with the appropriate education that would change their behaviours, until that, trust me.
Look, I was in one school, it was a boys school and normally when I go there, I normally do the education and it takes between two to three hours, it is very interactive and I go there with trained health workers and social workers including a person living with HIV and social workers who would do one on one counselling, and we have time, it is like a whole day in the school.
We have time to spake to the boys and girls, in one school I spoke to 55 boys, All of them have girlfriends, this is excluding what my other colleagues and trained nurses had done. I just sat down and said let me talk to these 55 boys on a subject.
Are you in a relationship, and of the 55, it was three that said, they were not in a relationship and by the time we finished, they were in a relationship, and some had three girlfriends and you ask them why and they would tell you why they are dating someone in this school, that school and someone in their house, and close by, it is terrible. We cannot respond to HIV the way we are going now, nothing is heard about it, people are doing their own thing, and occasionally we go and give figures.
To be continued……
Interview by Sylvanus Gatorwu