Not too long ago issues of ill health, preventive measures against disease infection and general counselling were private matters that could not be discussed in the corridors of the Electricity Supply Corporation of Malawi (ESCOM).
Consequently, some ESCOM employees ended up suffering in silence because they could not open up to their workmates for fear of stigma and discrimination.
However, all this changed from around the year 2000 when ESCOM trained peer educators and eventually formed a National Steering Committee for HIV and AIDS.
Abel Mvula is one of the peer educators for ESCOM and has many success stories to tell about his role.
Mvula says peer educators have helped in social behavioural change, increased awareness on how to prevent infections and access treatment.
“I remember back in the days there were some line persons who would overspend on multiple partners every time we went to the field to work.
However, when we were trained as peer educators, we sensitized them to the dangers of having multiple partners. Such cases have eased down because we guide and counsel those who are taking a wrong path in their lives,” he said.
Another peer educator said they no longer behave as helpless bystanders who would not intervene when fellow employees are putting their lives at risk through overdrinking and womanizing.
“Once we observe that a fellow employee is ill, using the knowledge and skills acquired during peer education training, we diplomatically and tactfully find a way of helping them access treatment whilst counselling them without invading their privacy,” he said.
Indeed, peer educators on HIV/Aids, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), general welfare, and of late Covid-19, have helped improve the health of ESCOM employees and with it, productivity.
Records from ESCOM’s National Steering Committee for HIV and AIDS show that some two decades ago, issues of HIV/Aids and STIs were so sensitive that few were willing to talk about them openly within the corporation. Result?
Some members of staff died due to lack of access to proper care and treatment. Others were usually absent from work due to poor health thereby denying ESCOM the required vibrant workforce.
However, the situation improved in the year 2003 when ESCOM trained 350 peer educators and eventually formed a 10-member national steering committee with personnel drawn from some stations across the country.
The role of the committee is to ensure training of peer educators, appointment of station committees, carry out station meetings, workplace workshops, provide home-based care to the chronically ill, distribute condoms, and hold open days.
With time, the number of peers educators has dwindled due to retirements, resignations and deaths.
To fill the gap and revive peer education, In mid-May 2022 ESCOM held a three-day Peer Education training in Mangochi for 31 participants from the Southern and Eastern regions.
In her speech, the Steering Committee’s National Coordinator Gloria Likupe said the training was aimed at empowering participants with knowledge on how to disseminate information to fellow employees at the workplace on the prevention of HIV/Aids, tuberculosis and Covid-19.
Likupe said the number of peer educators within the corporation had declined from 350 registered in the year 2000 to around 50 due to reasons such as retirement and transfers; hence the need for developing capacity of more peer educators.
The participants received certificates of attendance at the end of the training which is in line with ESCOM’s policy to ensure a healthy workforce in order to improve productivity.
Gertrude Kaluluma was among the participants at the workshop and said she could not wait to impart the knowledge to fellow employees.
“Gone are the days when I would just observe a fellow employee going astray without helping out. The workshop has been an eye opener on how we can approach those who have health problems in a manner that would make them open up and even help them access medical care,” Kaluluma said.
The peer educators have contributed to improvement of the health of employees through reduced cases of HIV infections evidenced by the decline in numbers of those living with the virus and those on ARVs.
Further proof of the success of the initiative was evident when the Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training and Project Hope Malawi awarded ESCOM with a Recognition “Certificate for Leadership and Commitment in Implementing HIV and AIDS Activities in The WorkPlace.”
ESCOM received the award during Awareness Open Days which the Ministry and Project organized in 2006. In 2007, MBCA declared ESCOM the overall winner of the Private Sector HIV and AIDS Business Excellence Awards.
ESCOM was one of the companies selected to form a taskforce called Private Sector Working Group, which gave birth to the Malawi Business Coalition against AIDS (MBCA) to increase involvement in HIV and AIDS matters.
ESCOM served on the MBCA technical committee for eight years until the year 2016.
A progress report by the HIV/Aids Steering Committee National Coordinator Likupe touted the initiative as a success.
According to the report, the initiative led to the creation of HIV and AIDS Policy at ESCOM and increased awareness on the dangers of sexually transmitted infections which has in turn resulted in “high patronage of ESCOM clinics for treatment of STIs and opportunistic infections.”
Such awareness has also eased discrimination and stigma of those living with HIV/AIDS and employees’ response to voluntary counselling and testing (VCT) is overwhelming.
“Introduction of ARVs has improved the health of employees who, having been tested positive for HIV, had hitherto no hope of survival. ESCOM has its own “People Living With HIV and AIDS” who are Role Models,” states the report.
Surely, with hardships of coping with everyday life and indeed Covid-19 putting the lives of employees even at more risk, the role of peer educators cannot be overemphasized.
SUCCESSFUL—Peer educators pose after the workshop
SUCCESSFUL—Peer educators pose after the workshop