1.8 million people have been newly infected by HIV in 2017. With all the means deployed to fight this disease since the 1990s, how is this still possible? The prevalence of various types of discrimination facing people living with HIV/AIDS is one of the answers.
Between 2000 and 2017, HIV-related deaths have been reduced by 40% and new infections by 43%, states the Global Fund. Thanks to the combined work of civil society groups, governments, health workers and local and international organizations, what seemed impossible in the 1990s has been achieved. We know how to prevent new HIV infections, how to prevent a mother from passing on the disease to her children and how to help people living with HIV/AIDS achieve full lives.
How stigma leads to sickness
What, then, is the holdup? Many voices are raised to highlight the link between sexual and gender discrimination, stigma and the propagation of the disease.
Anti-gay laws help the global spread of HIV, explained Nobel Laureate and President of the International Aids Society (IAS) Françoise Barré-Sinoussi in 2014. In Russia or in African countries such as Uganda or Nigeria, institutionalized hate and discrimination against homosexuals have led to a catastrophic rise in HIV infections.
Gender discrimination heighten the risks to which are exposed key populations such as girls and young women. Worldwide, 64% of young people living with HIV are female. In sub-Saharan Africa, 71%, according to the NGO Advocates for Youth. Deprived of adequate sex education, young women are also more exposed to sexual violence, which increases the probability of being infected.
Stigma also has a very real consequence on whether a person will seek the help they need and pursue the very treatment that will stop the spread of the disease. The shame associated with having the disease pushes individuals to disregard screening, enter denial or isolate themselves from the social and medical entities that can help them. Such is the story of 4-year-old orphan Renuca’s family in southern India, whose parents were so terrified of facing stigma they didn’t disclose their condition to their relatives, nor took antiretroviral medicine.
Because of this stigma, people living with HIV/AIDS are also among the first to be disregarded in times of crisis. This is the case now in Venezuela: stock-outs of HIV medicine are endangering the lives of many and HIV activists are being targeted by the government.
Stigma stems from ignorance
The way people perceive HIV is key to understanding the strength of this stigma. The 2018 report published by the Global Network of People living with HIV (GNP+) and the International Labor Organization shows that 10 out of 13 countries recorded unemployment rates at 30% or higher for people living with HIV. In Honduras, this unemployment rate reaches 61%.
Ongoing discrimination is being carried out on a daily basis by people who simply do not know what HIV is or how the most recent treatments work. The 2017 report produced by French NGO AIDES showed that 31% of French people surveyed believed that workplace discrimination targeting people living with HIV/AIDS was justified. The same report points out the ignorance of surveyed people as regards the illness. Another study conducted in France proves the correlation between this ignorance-based discrimination and the persistence of unsafe sexual practices among high-risk populations (men who have sex with men, drug users, sex workers, etc.).
A new outlook on AIDS
Education and information encourage dialogue, which in turn helps promote a new outlook on AIDS. This is the purpose of the awareness campaigns conducted by NGOs such as the (RED) campaign led by ONE.
To fight more effectively against discrimination by quantifying the stigma, the People living with HIV/AIDS Stigma Index was launched globally in 2008 and renewed in 2018. The data gathered helps empower all those involved and strengthen the networks of people living with HIV/AIDS worldwide.
Promoting human rights: a political response to HIV/AIDS
GNP+ Director Rico Gustav recently stressed how important it is to integrate a human rights component to the HIV response: “How do we expect a country that criminalizes certain key populations, or a country where there is widespread discrimination against key populations, to provide continuous and quality health services to those who are criminalized, without putting them at risk of prosecution?”
By legalizing gay sex, India recently took a major step in its fight against AIDS. This new right directly impacts the way people living with HIV/AIDS are perceived – and thus the quality of treatment they are likely to get.