The group provides a safe space for these women and ACPNeT places heavy emphasis on community care and kinship networks. “We need someone to hold our hands and say it’s ok. And someone to listen,” says Magagula. The organization’s base of peer navigators do this through holistic and culturally appropriate representation.
As Ngozi Joe-Ikechebelu, a Nigerian Physician and Academic Healthcare Researcher with the group, says, “The best people to relate with their community are those in the same group because we have similar challenges.” Joe-Ikechebelu gives the example of language being a barrier when accessing health services. “But if we have peer navigators that have been culturally trained to relate with members, it makes the process easier.”
When African women migrate to Canada, they find themselves at the intersection of systemic barriers such as racism, sexism, and precarity due to immigration status. “You see that because of your race or because of your colour, people are already categorizing you or labelling you, causing further oppression and affecting our health and well-being when we look at social determinants of health affecting our people,” Joe-Ikechebelu says.
African migrant women living with HIV/AIDS are not only navigating the stigma of the condition but also language barriers, housing, healthcare, and education, set against the backdrop of a precarious immigration status which makes it harder to advocate for themselves.
Doing data differently
Of the 71 countries where HIV/AIDS is endemic, 42 are in Sub-Saharan Africa. Currently, the highest source of Black immigration to Canada is from Africa, making the need for more research centring the voices of women immigrating from here imperative, Joe-Ikechebelu says.
Though the community is aware of which problems need to be addressed, without data, it becomes difficult to get institutions and politicians to take these problems seriously. This leads to community deaths despite the preventable nature of the disease. To rectify the lack of data, ACPNeT is partnering with the University of Victoria and the University of BC to undertake a research project spotlighting the impacts of stigma.
While data has a history of being extractive, ACPNeT is making it a priority to do data differently by amplifying the voices of participants through participatory action research. “The ultimate aim of a participatory action initiative is complete empowerment. We want a situation where a community member, despite challenging social determinants of health, can come out and do analysis in quantitative study … or qualitative research,” Joe-Ikechebelu says.
Part of the project includes asking community members to take photographs to represent how stigma impacts their lives. “Our women, they were expressing themselves through photos,” Magagula says. She adds it also helps as a “mechanism for decision makers seeing the issues visually.” Being able to participate in a photo essay project has helped amplify the voices of African migrant women and help them take control of their own narrative. Joe-Ikechebelu explains this process is “transformative because, at the end of the day, you’re working towards social change and health equity.”
A familial approach
ACPNeT’s approach centres on family, and the respect Magagula and Joe-Ikechebelu have for each other is palpable. They call each other “sister” and their care is evident in how they hold space for each other. Whether through data collection or immediate support, ACPNeT is working toward making the lives of the sub-Saharan African migrant women better on an individual and systemic level. They are now an internationally recognized organization and have helped many African women understand that HIV/AIDS alone is not a barrier to leading healthy lives.
However, Magagula and Joe- Ikechebelu expressed that one major barrier to doing this work is a lack of funding. From providing connection to a safe space for women, improving access to education and healthcare, and building the capacity of these women to spearheading their data initiatives, funding is vital.
Magagula explains one of the key components in either being able to obtain funding or change policy, is for policymakers, academics, and other decision-makers to be willing to reach out and listen, even when it is uncomfortable.
Reflecting on the work ACPNeT does, Joe-Ikechebelu expressed, “It’s been a great journey, listening, sharing, reflecting with women that migrated from sub-Saharan Africa. Their challenges, their opportunities, and most importantly, their hopes and their dreams in their journey forward and living in Canada.”