Hiv and stigmatisation
The Effect of Stigmatisation
Silence is the most dangerous effect of stigmatizing people with HIV. Fear of stigma makes people afraid to reveal their positive status by changing their behaviour. This means that men and women continue to have unprotected sex, intravenous drug users continue to share needles, and HIV spreads faster than ever. Churches have often been accused of complicity in this silence. Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane of Cape Town has gone further by saying that ‘the church is to blame for the stigma and the spread of HIV/AIDS’, because a destructive theology linked sex with sin, guilt and punishment (emphasis added).
A second consequence of stigmatisation is that people who are not part of the stigmatised groups consider their way of life to be risk-free. In the UK, associating HIV with the homosexual community has led many people – especially young people who are particularly vulnerable because of their sexual behaviour – to wrongly imagine themselves to be protected. Stereotyping is dangerous, and not just for those who fit the stereotype.
Thirdly, stigmatization leads to rejection. People who believe that HIV can be transmitted through touch, by eating food prepared by an HIV-positive person or by sharing their utensils, will reject anyone they know or believe is infected claiming that they are protecting themselves. This is a heavy psychological burden for the rejected individual.
Blame a widow
Fourthly, the custom in many African countries makes families blame a widow for her husband’s death from an AIDS-related illness and throwing her and her children out of their homes. Rejection is not restricted to individuals, families or communities. In Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, a recently established support group for HIV-positive people is campaigning against national and international discrimination. One of their members, Malia Malo, said that their aim is to end the refusal by some countries to accept residence applications from people who are HIV-positive. If a person discovers he is positive and is rejected by, say, the United States, it’s a double rejection. There is an effort to contact overseas networks to lobby international bodies such as the UN.
Jeanne Gapiya is one of the founders of Burundi’s Association of Seropositive People (ANSS). She first spoke out about her HIV-status at the 1995 World AIDS Day celebration in the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Bujumbura. ‘We must have compassion for people with AIDS’, said the priest in his sermon, ‘because they have sinned, and because they are suffering for it now.’ Jeanne can’t remember how she got from her seat to the front of the church. ‘I have HIV’, she said, ‘and I am a faithful wife. Who are you to say that I have sinned, or that you have not? We are all sinners, which is just as well, because it is for us that Jesus came.’
The Effect of HIV on Women
The effect of HIV on women in Africa was graphically described by Stephen Lewis, the United Nations (UN) Special Envoy on HIV/AIDS in Africa. Addressing a conference on microbicides, he said that the women of Africa run the household, they grow the food, they assume virtually the entire burden of care, they look after the orphans, they do it all with an almost unimaginable stoicism and as recompense for a life of almost supernatural hardship and devotion, and they die in pain. Because of poverty and gender inequality, women are not only particularly vulnerable to infection themselves; they also bear the consequences of the epidemic to a much greater degree than men.
1.1 Women’s Vulnerability
Sheer economic need drives women into risky relationships in order to feed themselves and particularly their children.
If a family is in need, mothers may be forced to put their own daughters on the street. In Zambia, the Catholic Diocese of Ndola works with groups of young people to develop educational plays and presentations on HIV/AIDS. One of their plays focuses on exactly this situation. A mother sends her only daughter onto the streets because her father is too drunk to provide for them both. When the girl becomes ill, the mother blames her husband for the infection because he has previously put their daughter at risk by sending her out at night to buy beer for him.
There are the countless women and girls worldwide who have been infected with HIV as a result of rape. There are young girls who have been sexually abused by relatives and acquaintances, and so on. Stephen Lewis uses dramatic language to describe the plight of women: ‘It goes without saying that the virus has targeted women with a raging and twisted Darwinian ferocity. It goes equally without saying that gender inequality is what sustains and nurtures the virus, ultimately causing women to be infected in ever-greater disproportionate numbers.’ He is scathing about the international community’s failure to acknowledge women’s vulnerability over so many years: ‘The reason we have observed – and still observe without taking decisive action – this wanton attack on women is because it’s women.