Hear from Activists Across Asia for #GivingTuesday

I hope this finds you safe and staying afloat. These times make clear the need to improvise and stay inspired. Together, we will get through this!

For #GivingTuesday, moved to May this year to make up for all the ways nonprofits haven’t been able to conduct “business as usual,” we want to give you a sneak peek into our new video project to uplift activist voices to inspire next-generation leaders in health and human rights.

Click on the picture or click HERE to see the video!

These activist stories must not be lost. Pioneers of LGBT, sex worker, HIV, and drug user movements have essential lessons to share, including about how they’ve confronted crisis. Our video interviews with global activists will be part of a new, online interactive course we’re creating with Drexel University’s School of Public Health; it’s based on our signature Know It, Prove It, Change It rights curriculum, developed in partnership with a wide range of activists from across Asia.

This open-access course and video library will be freely available to anyone, anywhere, who is battling injustice, rights abuses, or is denied access to services or healthcare, including in the COVID-19 response.

Happy Giving Tuesday! Please donate so that we can continue to support the frontlines activists who have changed our world for the better. And if you have concerns or needs tied to what your community is going through right now, please don’t hesitate to reach out.

All the best,

P.S. If you prefer to write a check, you can mail your donation to: Asia Catalyst c/o Human Rights Watch, 350 Fifth Ave., 34th Floor, New York, NY 10118 USA.

COVID-19: The Health + Human Rights Perspective from Myanmar

As a health and human rights organization that came of age during the HIV epidemic, Asia Catalyst has been working nonstop to leverage the lessons learned fighting AIDS to protect vulnerable groups during COVID-19.

This week, we share an interview with Dr. Khine Su Win, our Senior Program Officer – a medical doctor turned public health advocate. She runs our year-long rights training program with marginalized groups including women living with HIV, transgender students, women organizing against domestic violence, people who use drugs, and ethnic minority farmers. These are her takeaways from the pandemic so far.

Q: What’s happening in Myanmar right now, from a medical and social perspective?
A: Myanmar confirmed its first COVID-19 case three weeks ago. As of April 12, we had 37 active cases and 4 deaths. The government instituted 14-21 days of quarantine for people arriving from other countries but we’re starting to see more cases in people who contracted it here. Like most countries, we’re working on contract tracing, testing and stay-at-home quarantine measures. But there is a shortage of facial masks and the price of masks is 5-10 times what it’d normally be. Health providers need better personal protective equipment, which the government is trying to rapidly produce. We don’t have enough testing or lab capacity, so only people with symptoms or close contact history with someone who’s tested positive can get tested. This means we’re skipping over asymptomatic carriers – a serious problem. I am also worried about flare-ups in the large migrant community and people living heavily populated, underdeveloped areas who are vulnerable to the virus and its economic devastation.

As part of our prevention and control measures, the government shut down the water festival, imposed travel restrictions in Yangon and Mandalay during Myanmar New Year, which we’d be celebrating right now, and shut down public gatherings and sporting events. Thousands of people have lost their jobs because garment factories are closed. We’ve gotten some foreign aid to slow COVID-19 and provide relief for people who lose jobs, along with mothers, elderly people, and migrants. Our government is also providing food to poor people while people are restricted from movement.

Q: What are you hearing from the community groups Asia Catalyst partners with?
A: Some are volunteering, conducting prevention activities in their communities to raise COVID-19 awareness, distribute food and masks, transport people suspected of being infected, and helping out at quarantine centers. It’s a reminder that the groups we work with are always on the frontlines; they are the healthcare lifeline, for many in the community. They’re making sure people living with HIV are still receiving counseling, their medications, and HIV prevention support. And of course they’ve had to postpone their physical meetings, workshops, and trainings until the epidemic is under control.

Khine in Shan State in Myanmar, where we run a pioneer program with ethnic minority farmers.

Q: How will this affect people living with HIV, sex workers, drug users, women dealing with intimate partner violence in Yangon, where you live?
A: Just meeting basic needs is a serious concern for people who were already living hand-to-mouth. Women and children in poverty are struggling to afford food and medicine. Female and transgender sex workers are worried about supporting their families. Some sex workers are taking risks to continue selling sex because they cannot survive without money coming in. This is an issue we will see more and more, people going back to work because they can’t afford not to, as the pandemic stretches on.

Migrant women living with HIV who are coming back to Myanmar do not have income and are in dire need of economic support. HIV antiretroviral therapy (ART) centers are crowded with limited protections from COVID-19. Most of the ART centers are located in the cities and people with HIV living outside of cities have difficulty getting there when most public transportation is closed.

Q: Asia Catalyst got its start working on the AIDS epidemic. What are the lessons we can bring over from the HIV epidemic?
Since the first HIV case was reported in 1981, we have been fighting this global pandemic. It is still one of the leading causes of death in Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, especially with key populations – sex workers, people who inject drugs, and men who have sex with men. The way to stop HIV/AIDS is by combating stigma, discrimination and punitive laws and policies that keep these groups from leading healthy, full lives.

With COVID-19, we again see the participation of vulnerable communities is crucial for diagnosis, contact tracing, quarantine, and reporting to work. We are only as healthy as the “weakest link” in our system of care. In Myanmar, there’s been discrimination against people with COVID-19, their family members, healthcare workers, migrant communities, and vendors or day laborers who can’t afford to stay home. The idea of pegging some people as “virus carriers” or “virus spreaders” is not helpful. It undermines a truly effective response and puts the whole population at risk. We need evidence-based social interventions for high risk groups, in addition to social distancing, and testing should be scaled up for everyone. We also need to make sure health measures take a rights-based approach. People are entitled to accurate up-to-date information, affordable health services, medicines or vaccines and to be protected from violence. COVID-19 cannot be an excuse to disregard people’s rights.

COVID-19 is highly contagious and everyone is at risk of being infected regardless of social class, race, ethnicity, income. For countries with poor healthcare systems – and not enough access to testing, personal protective equipment, or vaccines – social distancing is effective. But we have to consider socioeconomic factors and the impact on people without wages if we want to create a response that will work over the long haul. A one-size-fits-all solution won’t work. It’s never been more crucial to invest in public health.

Q: How are you staying safe, sane, and healthy through the pandemic?
A: I stay at home most of the time, wash my hands frequently, eat healthy, sleep regularly and do physical activities like swimming, yoga, a dancing game. I’ve been improving my cooking skills by trying new recipes. I communicate regularly with family and friends.

To not feel overwhelmed, I only follow news from reliable media sources like the Ministry of Health, Myanmar Time, or DVB. Meditation helps me stay calm. And I focus on the positive things coming out of this crisis. Mother nature is having its time to heal, this is a moment for self-reflection, and I appreciate even more the places I have been and things I have done for the community. Also I watch lots of funny cat and dog videos on the Internet.

Stay healthy + inspired!

Q&A with Alexa Johns, Asia Pacific Alliance for Sexual & Reproductive Health & Rights

Dear Friends,
We hope you are well during these trying times. It is so important to stay connected and support one another now. While the COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented in some ways, in others it is painfully familiar, highlighting the world’s inequalities and injustices and hitting the socially, economically, and legally marginalized the hardest.

As an organization born out of the AIDS epidemic, the partners, community groups and networks of marginalized groups we work with have decades of incredible wisdom on how to protect ourselves and assert our rights — how to access affordable, inclusive healthcare and look out for gaps in the COVID-19 response. Below, we highlight the Asia Pacific Alliance for Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights, an amazing group fighting for gender equality and standing up against the kind of rights rollbacks that can emerge during crises such as this one.

Photos from our staff retreat in Myanmar in January, when we were happily all together.

*The below e-blast was written just prior to the COVID-19 outbreak in the US. Yes, that feels like a lifetime ago.

We are excited to share our Q&A with Alexa Johns, who is dedicated to protecting and fighting for the rights of women around the globe as Executive Director at the Asia Pacific Alliance for Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (APA). Asia Catalyst is a proud member of APA.

Q: Which areas of sexual and reproductive health do you think are still not adequately addressed in the region?
A: Freedom to express sexuality and sexual orientation, gender identity and sex characteristics; freedom from discrimination and violence; access to comprehensive sexuality education for young people and adolescents; and access to safe and legal abortion. These rights are becoming increasingly at risk and violated with the growing conservatism and authoritarianism in the region.

Q: What is an exciting project that APA is currently involved in?
A: Currently, we are working on a new project to develop rights-based indicators for the issues mentioned above – indicators civil society can use to collect data to hold their governments accountable to commitments on sexual and reproductive health. And help answer questions like, “What really works?” We will pilot and test them with APA’s members. Organizations like Asia Catalyst  have an important role to play in identifying the kind of information communities really want, and gaps between policies and realities on the ground. Once it is ready, we will sharing the results publicly, for other civil society groups to use and learn from.

Also last September we held a Knowledge Exchange on CEDAW and the SDGs to help activists make sense of the many international conventions and frameworks on SRHR, and pinpoint opportunities for civil society to engage with governments and push for change using these frameworks.

Q: Is there a story you could share that drives home the threats to women’s rights today and what we can accomplish by fighting back?
A: In Indonesia the government made an attempt to pass a new draft Penal Code, which contained a number of articles violating people’s rights – restricting consensual sexual acts and limiting it within the confines of marriage, and criminalizing abortion. Thousands of university students, legal experts, and academics joined massive demonstrations across Indonesia to protest the penal code. Organizations such as APA circulated a joint statement. A few days before it was set to pass, President Joko announced the legislation would be dropped until the next Parliament. 

APA members at the learning exchange they organized on how to take advantage of Committee to End the Discrimination Against Women and Sustainable Development Goals in Bangkok last September.

APA’s mission is to hold governments in the Asia Pacific to their obligations on sexual health and reproductive rights, and ensure that marginalized communities have a voice in shaping the laws that affect them. Follow them online @AsiaPacAlliance or contact Alexa at alexandra@asiapacificalliance.org.

Thanks for reading!

What We’re Doing on COVID-19

Map by Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Resource Center

Dear Friends,

All of us at Asia Catalyst are thinking of you, our beloved friends, partners, allies, and colleagues. We hope this message finds you well. Staying connected and supported during this time is essential, and you should feel free to reach out for support if you need it. We are all in this boat together, and it’s a critical moment for us to, as a US AIDS activist recently wrote, “grab the wheel, and with a groaning, wide, ungainly sweep of the rudder, turn this country around as if our lives depended on it—because they do.”

Since the start, Asia Catalyst has been about protecting the most vulnerable and making healthcare a basic human right guaranteed to all. Since COVID-19 has spread worldwide, I’ve been joining with staff, partners, and allies to organize a strategy and response to keep our communities safe.

We are focused on:

     * Fighting price-gouging by pharmaceutical companies by making sure COVID-19 drugs, diagnostics, and vaccines will be free, accessible, and available to all.

     * Consulting the grassroots groups we work with – including those led by women living with HIV and women fighting gender-based violence – to meet the economic and social burdens that will fall hardest on them. 

     * Doubling down on advocacy to ensure people with HIV and people who use drugs get safer and more flexible access to opioid substitution therapy, naloxone, and safer injecting equipment while they cannot go in to doctor’s offices or harm reduction drop-in centers. 

     * Making sure the latest COVID-19 information, testing, services, and support are available to LGBT people, sex workers, drug users, and all those most often left out of public health initiatives.

As global activists, we will use this opportunity to bond, break out tried-and-true strategies, and come up with new ones to confront, and hopefully defeat the worst drivers and consequences of this pandemic. It’s what we do, and we are here to do it alongside you.

Below are a few resources we’ve found useful. Do not hesitate to get in touch if you have thoughts, concerns, or ideas to share as we do all we can to protect health and human rights.

In solidarity,

Vietnam’s Exploding Advocacy Movement

In October, Asia Catalyst supported the #StrongerTogether Summit, a groundbreaking meeting of LGBTIQ leaders from across Vietnam, organized by Lighthouse Social Enterprise. We went to Hanoi to join the activists, and interviewed three dynamic people at the forefront of this movement to share their thoughts on the challenges and opportunities ahead. 

Doan Thanh Tùng is an LGBTIQ and HIV activist, and the Executive Director of Lighthouse Social Enterprise, one of the first and largest LGBTIQ community-led organizations in Vietnam.

Q: Tùng, now that the first community-led national summit on LGBTIQ has wrapped, what’s next? What did it mean to you, putting on this ground-breaking summit? 

A: This was the first national LGBTIQ summit in Vietnam, and also the first time we had the opportunity to bring diverse communities together – with over 70 LGBTIQ activists and representatives from all over the country. The Summit covered milestones in Vietnam’s LGBTIQ movements, sustainability models, community challenges, and opportunities for collaboration.

We are particularly delighted with the Summit Statement, a powerful call to recognize the rights of all LGBTQ people and work together to build an equitable, sustainable and healthy future for everyone. An inclusive and diverse technical working group formed to disseminate the statement and address the issues faced by LGBTIQ community.

Our belief: together, we glow brighter, we grow stronger. Hand in hand, side by side, we can embrace an inclusive society with equity and health for all.

Tùng is a recipient of a 2019 APCOM HERO Young Achiever award. To learn more, contact Tùng at thanhtung.lighthouse@gmail.com

Mia Nguyen is a counselor, professor, activist, speaker, and writer in Ho Chi Minh City. Mia works on transgender and LGBTIQ advocacy with the United Nations, governments, and community organizations.

Q: Mia, what is your role in supporting LGBTIQ mental health, and what are some of the most pressing issues facing the community?

A: My role is providing training to clinicians, professors, healthcare providers and teachers on LGBTIQ issues, gender equality and equity, human sexuality and sexual health across Vietnam. I build pressure against “conversion therapy,” which some social workers or therapists are still practicing. I also help my students and colleagues to incorporate “inclusive practices and gay affirmative approaches” in therapy and social work. This is an important starting point to understand what LGBTIQ clients need.

In Vietnam, the law is based on binary genders so LGBTIQ students so have no protection at school, work, and in the community in general. LGBTIQ youth are generally not accepted, so they often rely solely dating apps to explore their sexual orientation and gender identity in hope of finding a partner. They easily become victims of sexual abuse. Sex education and health is not taught at school.

Today, the young generation wants to come out and express their sexual orientation and gender identity as soon as possible. Still, some issues have not progressed much. Transgender people are still not protected by laws or supported by healthcare providers. Same-sex marriage is not permitted. Last but not least, suicide and mental health issues are common in the community and there is not enough attention to help people in the healthcare system.

Mia is part of Vietnam’s Network of People Living with HIV and was nominated twice for “Most Inspiring Person of the Year” by Vietnam’s ICS Center. To learn more, contact Mia atmia@ladiesofvietnam.net

Ha Thanh is a transgender activist and researcher who is passionate about raising the voices and visibility of Vietnam’s transgender community.

Q: Ha, Last year, you founded “It’s T Time VN.” Tell us about how you became a leading trans advocate. What are your dreams for this year?

“It’s T Time” was founded late last year, and with other trans-led organizations in Vietnam, we have been strong advocates for passing a Gender Affirming Law. You can read about the legal struggle here. We have worked closely with the community so they could participate effectively in discussions with the Ministry of Health. 

This year, we conducted research on the experience of trans people living with gender dysphoria, with funding from USAID and presented our findings in Seoul at ILGA Asia. For the Transgender Day of Remembrance, we organized the largest Pride event ever for the trans community in Vietnam. The event sent a powerful message on tolerance, equality and diversity. We also alleviate some of the hardships trans people face during transitions so they can live the life they deserve. 

My hope for next year is that “It’s T Time” keeps moving forward, stronger, to assist fellow trans men and women claiming their safe spaces and raising their voices.

For more info, contact Ha at itsttime.vn@gmail.com

Thanks for reading and supporting inspiring activists like Tùng, Mia, and Ha. 

With gratitude,