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BOTSWANA: Diamond giant leads the fight against HIV/AIDS

gaborone, 14 November 2001 (IRIN) - Debswana, Botswana's giant diamond company, is leading the fight against HIV/AIDS in the southern African country with an innovative response to the pandemic.

Diamonds provide 70 percent of Botswana's foreign exchange and the industry is seen as the lifeblood of the country. With 35 percent of Botswana's population estimated as HIV positive, the industry is shouldering the enormous task of helping to curb the spread of HIV/AIDS in the workplace and caring for employees living with HIV/AIDS.

Situated 130 km from the capital Gaborone, the town of Jwaneng is home to the richest diamond mine in Africa. The mine is one of three operated by Debswana - a joint venture between the government of Botswana and diamond company De Beers - and it is here that the company's HIV/AIDS policy has been first implemented.

Seb Sebetlela, Assistant General Manager of the Jwaneng Mine, told PlusNews that the company has recently undergone a strategic review. A key theme raised during this process was the need to minimise the effect of HIV/AIDS on the workers and the company and to provide care for HIV positive employees.

This has been implemented with the recent provision of subsidided antiretroviral therapy to all workers. The company funds 90 percent of the cost of antiretroviral drugs to employees and their spouses. But According to the mine's Chief Medical Officer, Dr Erasmus, only 12 percent of the known HIV positive employees on the mine are currently on the antiretroviral programme.

The Mine hospital provides the drugs as well as counselling for those living with HIV/AIDS. In order to encourage adherence to the treatment, employees are linked up to an Aid for AIDS programme, an email system that monitors each employee's progress. Erasmus admits that stigma and denial are still a major problem in the community and the poor response to the antiretroviral programme can be attributed to people's fears about HIV/AIDS.

"But we are slowly winning" he added. He pointed out that 80 percent of the employees at the mine voluntarily took saliva tests two years ago, and of those 30 percent were HIV positive. Tests done in July this year showed that 20.9 percent were positive. Erasmus attributes this decrease to the HIV/AIDS programme run by the company. Debswana has established a network of AIDS coordinators, counsellors and peer group leaders to "mainstream" HIV/AIDS awareness in the workplace.

Lena Tumelo, Jwaneng's Mine AIDS Programme Coordinator, is a petite woman who speaks passionately about her work. She told PlusNews that at first when she conducted HIV/AIDS awareness campaigns, many of the workers didn't believe what they were told about the disease.

Tumelo found that most male employees were not willing to change their attitudes and sexual behaviour even after the company had spent "a lot of money" on condom distribution and prevention campaigns. Then after taking the time to listen to the employees’ fears and misconceptions about HIV/AIDS, they changed their strategy.

Now, there is more involvement and discussion between the workers. Twice a year, the company conducts AIDS awareness weeks where workers participate in focus group discussions. It was at these discussions where many workers expressed their fear of HIV/AIDS counselling and treatment.

They felt that they were being punished and made to "sit in a corner and think," she said. The introduction of subsidised antiretroviral drugs has received a positive response from employees and has prompted more employees to be tested because they feel that now, "something can be done".

In addition to these measures, Debswana also recently announced a new policy to bolster the fight against HIV/AIDS by using its muscle in the rest of the economy. All companies wishing to do business with the company are required to demonstrate that they have a work place policy and programme on HIV/AIDS. Human Resources Planning Officer Bhekezela Mbakile told PlusNews that most companies have supported the measure and have been willing to share their HIV/AIDS policies with Debswana.

"Companies just can't solve HIV/AIDS in the workplace by throwing money around," said Erasmus. He added that the success of Debswana's HIV/AIDS programme can be attributed to management's involvement and visible support.

Sebetlela told PlusNews that the company's management holds monthly meetings that specifically deal with HIV/AIDS issues. All stakeholders are consulted and the company works closely with the unions when dealing with HIV/AIDS policies. Debswana's multi-sectoral approach means "chiefs, traditional healers, as well as the government were part of this process," said Lena Tumelo.

Theme (s): Care/Treatment - PlusNews,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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