Eli Binder was an intern with Asia Catalyst for the summer of 2014. He is now in his second year of the College Program at Bard High School Early College.

Asia Catalyst brings together representatives from Chinese community-based organizations (CBOs) in its year-long peer-driven capacity building program. These CBOs represent marginalized groups who experience unique challenges in obtaining the highest attainable standard of health, including people living with HIV/AIDS (PLHIV), LGBT groups, people who use drugs (PWUD) and sex workers. Over the course of a year, the reprsentatives of these CBOs learn how to effectively run an organization and conduct rights-based advocacy. In July, an external evaluator collected testimonials from alumni organizations about the most significant changes that were sparked by Asia Catalyst’s training.

As an intern this summer, I had the privilege of translating many of these Most Significant Change stories from Chinese to English. Each document tells the tale of the changing status of these marginalized groups – and their organization’s role in catalyzing these changes. They all thank Asia Catalyst’s training for the knowledge and sense of empowerment and autonomy that made their changes possible.

The marginalized groups that Asia Catalyst works with in China face social stigma and institutional discrimination. For PLHIV, these issues manifest themselves in things like discriminatory hiring practices and the denial of medical services. LGBT groups face extreme stigma – in fact, homosexuality was classified as a mental disorder by the Ministry of Health until 2001. Sex workers and PWUD are also socially ostracized, and in addition, sex workers face up to two years of detention and forced labor under the extrajudicial “Custody and Education” system while PWUD face similar treatment in compulsory detoxification centers.

These issues faced by Asia Catalyst’s partners are undoubtedly daunting. Reading the Most Significant Change stories by the organizations that have tasked themselves with combating rights violations, however, left me with an optimistic outlook on the future of these marginalized groups in China.

Most of the Most Significant Change stories begin in a similar manner: an individual or group of people witnessed or suffered a health-related injustice or human rights violation, and decided to do something about it. Each activist formed an organization tasked with righting the wrong they experienced – but most of them did not have a formal education in organizational management. A climate of mistrust of activists and stigma surrounding marginalized groups has left Chinese society with little framework for aiding activist with big ambitions and good intentions but without managerial experience.

Because of this, most of the alumni of Asia Catalyst’s training began without the knowledge and capacity to run sustainable organizations. For example, one of Asia Catalyst’s partner organizations was founded by four female sex workers who wanted to provide HIV prevention and medical services to other sex workers in their community. Lanlan, one of the founders, recalls that upon foundation, her and her colleagues’ “understanding of what an NGO was was not very clear,” and because of this, they were not able to make the difference in their community that they wanted to.

Participating in Asia Catalyst’s capacity building program seemed to change that. The CBOs cite a vast array of skills they took away from the training as having contributed to their most significant changes. 88% identify increased strategic planning capacity as key to their most significant change; 53% note an increase in their advocacy capacity as crucial; 29% identify an increased fundraising capacity as critical; and 24% cite an increased training and coaching capacity as important – the list goes on and on.

For Xishuangbanna Buddhist House, a CBO located in the scenic hills of Yunnan, the most significant change came from learning about risk management. Yan Han’en, a member of the organization wrote, “before I participated in Asia Catalyst’s non-profit leadership training, I didn’t know what risk management was… afterwards I did.” Before working with Asia Catalyst, Yan’s organization was always either without funding or stonewalled by the local authorities. With a risk management plan, however, they learned to cooperate with the local government and secure funding for projects. Recently, they gained state approval for their newest program, the Dazhou Village Dai People’s Legal Literacy Project. With the help of Asia Catalyst, Xishuangbanna Buddhist House continues to carry out its mission of “filling the gaps in services that the government doesn’t provide or provides poorly.”

There is no clear trend concerning the social and legal status of these marginalized groups in China. On the one hand, there seems to be regression – Chinese prisons continue to build segregated wings for HIV positive prisoners, officials prevented prominent sex-worker activist Ye Haiyan from attending the AIDS 2014 conference, and recently, China’s Spring Airlines has been preventing PLHIV from boarding flights. However, progress continues to occur on a large scale in society as well. In May of this year, a petition to abolish the “Custody and Education” system that accumulated 108 signatures, some from prominent lawyers and former politicians, was sent to the National People’s Congress Standing Committee. And this July, a Chinese court heard a landmark lawsuit against a “gay conversion therapy” clinic, as well as Baidu, the Chinese equivalent of Google, for advertising the clinic.

The stories of Asia Catalyst’s partner CBOs show concrete changes on the community level. After advocacy and strategic planning training, one organization ran projects that resulted in solutions for some of the fundamental problems of PLHIV in their community. Another partner has established volunteer teams of LGBT parents and friends in twenty cities across China, creating a support network that was previously non-existent. And in Hebei and Henan, two partner CBOs have procured special government funding to support PLHIV. With the success of Asia Catalyst’s partner organizations in mind, it’s very hard to look at the futures of these marginalized Chinese groups with anything but optimism.

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