There is a saying – “ who feels it, knows it and wants most to change it”. Back in 2004, LGBT, Human Rights and HIV activists of the Caribbean, were feeling the impact of glaring gaps in the national and regional responses to HIV & AIDS prevention, treatment. care and support services.
The Caribbean Regional Strategic Framework for HIV & AIDS (2002-2006), and national policies and programmes had established goals to target and scale up services to most at-risk groups – men who have sex with men, sex workers, drug users etc – but had little implementation strategies. There was limited understanding of the issues, needs and concerns of such groups and countries' national strategic plans had little funding air marked or strategies developed to effectively reach to the groups.
Civil society activists, advocates and service providers were impatient with the scope, pace and nature of the regional and national response and saw the need to increase their capacity to influence change.
Dr. Robert Carr had a clear vision for what was needed - a regional, civil society network of advocates and service providers from the most vulnerable populations, able to drive lobbying and advocacy for appropriate policy, legislative and service delivery changes. Robert took the lead.
Robert championed the vision, reaching out to colleagues in Jamaica, Trinidad, St. Lucia and beyond. In December 2004 a call went out to civil society actors attending a meeting of UNAIDS in Montego Bay, Jamaica. They call was for them to first get together in Kingston to talk about the concerns and the possibility of creating a network of some kind.
The meeting included representatives from the Eastern Caribbean, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Trinidad, Curacao, - a cross-section of the French, English, Spanish and Dutch speaking Caribbean. The participants agreed to create a forum through which they could combine efforts. They understood that it would go a far way to help create the political space for the views and voices of the key populations to be heard.
Inspired and sometimes fiery conversations continued through 2005. A core leadership team capitalised on other regional HIV meetings convened by the Pan-Caribbean Partnership Against HIV & AIDS (PANCAP), UNAIDS and other entities, using these as a vehicle to keep the communities in conversation, many, for the first time.
Leading the way along with Robert Carr were colleagues such as Ian McKnight, Rohan Lewis, Veronica Senac and others who formed a core working team facilitating the dialogue and refining the architecture of the organisation based on the several groups’ input.
Initially, the majority of participants in the discussions were from the LGBT, sex work and youth communities. Later, other individuals such as Marcus Day added the perspectives of the drug using population.
In 2005, with the collaboration of Michel DeGroulard then of UNAIDS, a fledgling group of some 30 organisations and individuals met in Kingston and formalised agreements about the network. Working groups were formed and their Chairpersons selected – Human Rights (Veronica Cenac) sex work (Juanita Altenbergh), treatment & support (Dr. John Waters).The working groups set about identifying needs of the populations, and ways in which the cross cutting issues affected them. Veronica Cenac, a lawyer, anchored the organisational building steps.
Top of the list of concerns were the social subordination, exclusion and criminalisation of the communities of concern, the lack of understanding of Human Rights and the nexus with HIV, the consequent lack of responsive policies and the need to confront and address stigma and discrimination in order to increase access to life saving treatment.
By December 2005, the Caribbean Vulnerable Communities Coalition had become a registered entity, incorporated in Jamaica where the greater number of activists and NGOs were.
With the coalition legally registered and working groups and Officers in place, the next step was to strengthen the ability of the specific population groups to jointly advocate, lobby and impact policy and programmes. This involved establishing or resuscitating specific population networks such as the Caribbean Sex Workers Association. With the CaribbeanFLAG already in existence since the late 1990s dealing with a broader agenda beyond HIV related issues, it was agreed that where their work dealt with HIV then CVC would be an ally.
Through all these efforts a strong advocacy platform emerged. In November 2006, the Caribbean Treatment Action Group convened a meeting in the Dominican Republic. There the fledgling CVC and allies produced the Bayahibe Declaration (http://www.sasod.org.gy/sasod-blog-world-aids-day-1) dealing with issues of treatment and care and setting out needed action to address the needs of each vulnerable group.
The Declaration read in part:
The widespread discrimination and abuse faced by members of socially marginalised groups -- sex workers, men who have sex with men, drug users, prisoners, young people in especially difficult circumstances, children who have lost one or more parent to AIDS -- heighten their risk of HIV infection, and impede their access to care and treatment where they are living with the disease. In this regard, their marginalised status compounds the stigma and discrimination they face because of HIV, and compromises or effectively bars their access to treatment.
This declaration, made in Bayahibe, Dominican Republic, in November 2006, calls for immediate action by Caribbean governments, regional and international health authorities, and international donors to correct the situation. This declaration also provides a roadmap for national governments, civil society actors, service providers and human rights defenders to ensure that all people living with HIV in the Caribbean can obtain proper care, treatment and support, and therefore realise their fundamental human rights to life and health.
Strengthening the momentum, CVC mobilised funding to support the work of various civil society organisations, knowledge-sharing and advocacy planning meetings, and impactful representation at national, regional and international meetings on HIV.
Since its formation, CVC has exceeded expectations. In 2011, with a strong reputation for its work, CVC became a sub-recipient of the CARICOM-PANCAP/Global Fund funding, in partnership with El Centro de Orientación e Investigación Integral (COIN) in the Dominican Republic, to implement the Caribbean Vulnerabalised Groups Project, which ends in December 2015.
But, 2011 was a watershed year for another reason. Robert Carr’s death sent shock waves through the community and was a huge blow. CVC redoubled its commitment to its Vision and Mission. A testament to the strength of the organisation has been its continued thriving and solid strides. CVC has kept the vision of Robert burning bright and is stronger and more institutionally grounded today, enjoying trust among its many partners.