Defending and Empowering
Datuk Dr Raj Karim still has a lot of fire in her belly as she painstakingly explains the work she is doing after being President of MAC from 2012 to 2016. She has gone into the deep, dark world of human trafficking. This, besides championing for the rights of abused and neglected children.
The good doctor has been crossing borders to neighbouring Southeast Asian countries gathering information on human trafficking. “There is a lot of exploitation going on and if it doesn’t end, this will contribute to the increase of HIV infections,” she says.
She adds that her work has given her an insight to children being sexually exploited in countries like Laos and Cambodia.
Dr Raj, 71 has had a long career in championing gender equality and women’s empowerment. More than three decades worth of work. She has worked behind the scenes to get policies and programmes moving that ensure the wellbeing of women, children and families.
She was introduced to the world of HIV/AIDS when she was International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) for the East and South-East Asia and Oceania Region regional director. In those days, they were still planning out the framework for sexual reproductive health. Along with that came STIs and of course, HIV/AIDS.
“HIV/AIDS became integral to sexual reproductive health. We wondered how it could be integrated into the framework and form the linkages,” she adds.
Eventually IPPF came up with the 5As: adolescent health, abortion, advocacy, access and AIDS. “It was about making things safe,” she says adding that this included young adults and healthy sexual behaviour and also approaching sex workers to promote safe sex.
There was also a need to have a model in the National Population and Family Development Board over the issue. “It was a time when HIV/AIDS was known as a ‘death disease’. A hopeless situation where everyone was dying,” she says. “But HIV/AIDS now has hope. If you take your medication, you will live a normal life.”
She became involved with MAC after she was approached to help them and was eventually voted in as president. Her presidency was at a time when government was cutting funds for the HIV/AIDS initiative. Sexual transmission was also on the rise.
She says there was some reserve money in the coffers but MAC had to start actively looking elsewhere for funding besides the financial help that was going to MAF.
“Lots of work needed to be done. We had a ‘big plate’ that was HIV/AIDS and it was only half full (when it came to money),” she says adding that raising funds was and still is difficult because of the stigma and discrimination that comes with the disease.
They also had to work with policy makers in order to have them understand the issues.
It was also a difficult time to promote awareness as sex was a topic many shied away from. “There were people saying why should we help? These are sex workers, people who poke themselves with needles,” she adds.
“It was very difficult to work around it and remove stigma and discrimination. But we need to try and understand people’s behavioural change and why they do things. That is the most important.”
“There needs to be government agencies talking about HIV/AIDS. It is, after all, a public health issue,” she concludes.
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