A Non-governmental organization, Heartland Alliance International (HAI), has restated its

resolve to continue to help the vulnerable and most marginalised communities (key

population) to ensure that no one is left behind.

The Country Director of the organization, Mr. Bartholomew Ochonye, said this in an

exclusive interview with Star Arabella Magazine, in Abuja Nigeria.

Good morning sir, please give us a brief of yours?

My name is Mr. Bartholomew Ochonye, I’m a public health practitioner with over 25 years working in this sector at local to national and international levels including. I have worked as Regional Director for sub Saharan Africa covering multi country health programs. I Oversee other  interventions like anti human trafficking in the north east Nigeria and sexual reproductive health and human rights interventions with various communities. I also oversee the management of the largest key populations program in Africa. 

 Can you tell us about Heartland Alliance?

Heartland Alliance is an organization that was created to address the needs of vulnerable and marginalized populations, especially the human right needs of these vulnerable populations. The human right aspect basically empower communities to take charge of their socio-economic and political rights and other components as enshrined both in our constitution and other instruments like the UN declaration on human rights, African chatter on human and peoples rights including United Nation conventions as domesticated by the Nigerian government. 

So, Heartland Alliance is established basically to address the gap created by injustice and discrimination on the basis of gender, social status and sexual diversity. Heartland Alliance operates from beginning in the US addressing poverty, jobs, housing and injustice and later spread globally having impact in different countries in the world, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Haiti, Ethiopia, Mexico, Colombia, Ghana, Cote d’ Ivoire , DRC, Nigeria Dominican Republic, Namibia, etc. people suffer discrimination because of their gender identity, sexual orientation or as a result of their social status in the society or social affiliation; like people who used drugs for example their social status in the communities leaves much to be desired. Sex workers or people that sell sex, LGBTIQ community, women & girls, victims of trafficking, rape survivors and even aged persons, a lot of them go through inhuman treatment 

For how long have you been with Heartland Alliance, can you share your experience with us?


I joined Heartland Alliance in 2012 and I have been with Heartland since then, so like 9 years plus, it has been an interesting and challenging journey, the work we do isn’t popular when we started, like how you introduce yourself as working with sex workers, people who use drugs, transgender persons, gay men and other men who have sex with men! you engage with policy makers to achiever policies that will favor vulnerable Nigerians including those incarcerated at correctional centers (formally known as prisoners).

Because we know that these vulnerable populations need support, so my experience with Heartland Alliance is very rewarding because it has exposed me to knowing so much more that affect communities, ordinarily these ones do not see the light of day because of their social status and clandestine background.

Heartland Alliance was able to make them see the light; we also serve as bridge between the government and the community through advocacy and policy dialogues. Because of the work that we have done we were able to influence policies significantly at federal and state levels especially HIV policies, the National prevention plans, national frameworks and other reproductive health policies like in Benue where we supported the recent reproductive health policy. To a large extent the communities that were largely left behind were involved in these policies development processes. Voices are now being heard. These communities are at higher risk of getting HIV, viral hepatitis and even sexually transmitted infections so why not bridge the gap if we want to achieve zero new infection, zero discrimination, and zero deaths. We can’t afford to leave any body behind including people living with HIV, because they are critical stakeholders. That’s why I said this work is rewarding because even people that can’t afford to pay for certain services, received services because of the work Heartland Alliance and her partners and founders are doing in Nigeria and other countries. The government, like recently the work the vice president is doing on social investment may not capture these persons but because we have engaged with the officials they have accepted to reaching out to them across the country through us. We are working to make sure the key populations are not left behind in access to life saving medications and related human rights services. 

And, in the state level we are working closely with the state government to make sure key populations, vulnerable people, marginalized people are able to access available services in those directions. We also been able to address issues of human trafficking especially in the northeast Nigeria where because of the insurgency some people take advantage of it to even traffic people to southern part or from southern part to the northern part or even completely across the boarders because of ongoing insurgency which is used as smokescreen, we recently working with NAPTIP through the lake Chad basin project we identified and reunited some of the victims of trafficking with their families.

In terms of human right and justices we have been able to addressed abuses by state actors who violate the rights of sex workers by government law enforcement agencies and others. We have been able to work with the national human rights commission to get justice for people whose rights were trampled upon. So, in that sense we tried to make sure innocent people are not victimized.

We also worked with women in the area of reproductive health services, we believe that sexual and reproductive health is a human right, you need to be able to know when to have sex, who to have sex with, who to love and the number of children you want to have irrespective of who you are without being forced. Is a basic right that should not be denied of anyone, for example sex workers should be able to have access to contraceptives both emergency and midterm or long acting contraceptives that suites they body physiology. It should be available to them; a single mother or parent including sexual minority should also have equal rights like any other person to have families and loved ones.

What are the Heartland Alliance area of concentration/area of focus in Nigeria?

I mentioned some of them already, in Nigeria most of the works we do are around healthcare but again we used human right based approaches to address healthcare. So, HIV treatment and care, for example currently we have over 50,000 people on treatment in our facilities across the country; specifically, Lagos, Akwa Ibom, Cross Rivers, we have also done similar work in Rivers, Nasarawa, Kaduna and Kano and in the FCT. We worked in all these places, we also addressed issue of policy advocacy to ensure the right of marginalized people is not violated including people who use drugs as a public health concern not criminal matter.

We also empower the community, we build capacity, institutional and technical capacity within the community, so if you are a sex worker you don’t have to end up on the street, you can build yourself esteem to the level that you can work in office and assist other sex workers.

We have empowered many young people through employment opportunities with us as we build and strengthen community based organizations and our local partners.  

We also mentored young key populations to take up leadership responsibilities and contribute to national response.

We have more than 20 key populations that have risen to become executive directors of organisations where they have grown to become great influencers of decision making at various levels both local and international. For example in  many states, we were the ones that created avenues for the sex workers to seat with the state agency for the control of AIDS to discuss issue on how to address HIV prevention and treatment needs of sex workers. The same thing we have done with other key population members including MSM, PWID, Transgender and those in correctional centers. Before now nobody is talking about transgender community their focus in Nigeria but since 2014 the transgender community has received more than recognition as critical stakeholders in national response as government engage them to plan public health interventions led by transgender persons who have done a lot of work.

Those are the kind of things that we do in Nigeria, we have supported over 30 community-based organizations who have full structure to have the means to be able to address the public health needs of the community. Why we do that, because that’s the way to go, that’s sustainability,  in making people feel supported, respected not just beneficiaries but as critical stakeholders to addressing the bigger picture issues we faced in Nigeria.

COVID-19 pandemic has been a very big challenge in the world, based on it sir, has the role or programs of Heartland Alliance changed?

Absolutely there have been some adjustment in our programming, one of it is the fact that, the lockdown was sudden especially the one that came around March 2020, last year. More than 90% of the people we work with survived daily on hand to mouth basis, meaning they have to go out daily to make a living. But because of COVID-19 they were grounded so we were able to make contribution within ourselves to help the people we are working with, because we haven’t got the budget due to the sudden nature of the pandemic in Nigeria other expenses that has to do with COVID-19 for the next year 2021 was better organized . We were able to make sure they have the basics need like food; we have to provided all of that to them because of lockdown they can’t go out. Also, the government is helpful to the large extent because they give us permit to move around as public health practitioners, we were able to provide services to them during lockdown 

Most of our works we do in groups so those kind of group meetings have to be done virtually, so how many community people that we are working with have smart phones or able to buy data to connect or afford computers? which are huge logistics in the communities. So, COVID-19 was a big issue which enable us to do a lot via social media like virtual trainings and many more just to ensure to cover that gap. Also access to vaccine was a big issue not because its not available but because there are lies or fake news all over the place about Covid vaccine. We have to work to bring the fact to people that’s the much we can do to make sure they take the vaccine, but we took the responsibility for providing all the information they need. So, to that extend COVID-19 affected our programs but we also been able to work a way around it.

What is the impact of COVID-19 on the key populations?

of course, I have talked about all these, key populations were not isolated from what is happening generally, in fact we are even worse affected by it, because the key populations are already hidden populations by the time you look at effect of COVID-19 which is affecting everybody, you can imagine how much more it will affect the population that’s already hidden and marginalized and push to the wall. Its really difficult for key population as far as COVID-19 is concerned even to come out and access services, because some of them access services not in conventional centers such as general hospitals and health centers. Some of them access services at one stop shop (OSS), drop-in centers, community centers and all of that. The COVID-19 caused a lot of restriction from moving around to those kind of places to access services, it prevents some of the meetings as well for the key population. All of that have to be done through other means. We have to introduce like E-consultations, E-pharmacy to be able to let key population access services. We also, introduced the differentiated model where we can take services to key population to where they are because we have permit to move around.

Heartland Alliance work with local authorities to improve victim identification and to provide comprehensive services to help survivors of trafficking heal from the trauma and access legal services, can you please throw more light on this sir?

Yes, like I said earlier on my remarks the victims of trafficking really vulnerable because at that point they are deprived of their right, they’re only responding to whoever the trafficker is. So, what we have done is to work with the relevant government agencies like Immigrations services, DSS, National agency for prohibition of trafficking in person (NAPTIP), the ministry of women affairs, the ministry of justice, the ministry of health, UN organization. We have also, done a lot of work with traditional institutions or religious/traditional leaders especially in the north; Borno, Adamawa and Yobe to be able to create that awareness on victim of identification and how to referred them within the referral mechanism to be able to identify what service they need. To that extent we were able to help a lot of victims of trafficking, for example 2 months ago, we were able to reconcile a mother and her baby back to her family in the East specifically Ebonyi state . The mother has been trafficked like four years ago she also got pregnant as a victim and had baby as a victim of trafficking. So, we worked with NAPTIP to sensitize the community because the community may hate the baby, because she is product of ‘bad blood’.

Sir what is your advice to Nigerian youth generally?

well, my advice to young people generally is that, to keep their hope alive and to look for credible alternative to whatever they want to do to achieve their aim in life, they have opportunities they should take advantage to make the best of it and still succeed. In every challenge there are opportunities and we pray that Nigeria will get its leadership crisis right soon to enable peace and security which creates environment for meaningful development.

Alright, thank you Mr. Bartholomew for having me

Thank you

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