The Pan Commonwealth civil society network for HIV and AIDS is rallying civil society leaders at all levels to speak up on the ongoing battle to end stigma and discrimination on World AIDS Day, 1 December.
The network, which brings together charities and civil society groups working to address HIV and AIDS issues around the Commonwealth, is urging people to speak out against the stigma and discrimination that continues to jeopardise HIV strategies like universal access and confidential testing and basic human rights.
The Network is urging its members and other civil society leaders to tell their stories of the damaging effects of stigma and to share good practice in tackling stigma to help hard to reach and vulnerable communities who still endure stigma in their role as carer of or person living with HIV and AIDS.
South African Supreme Court Judge Edwin Cameron has for many years been a strong advocate against stigma and discrimination. Justice Cameron was the first senior South African official to publicly state that he was living with HIV after hearing of the stoning and stabbing by neighbours of activist Gugu Dlamini after she spoke on radio about living with HIV.
Justice Cameron stressed the importance of clear voices against the prejudice and discrimination people living with and affected by HIV and AIDS experience. “Stigma and discrimination show in many different communities, social groups and countries,” said Justice Cameron. “But the end result is the same: a massive challenge for those people and their families trying to live constructively with HIV and AIDS, which is now fully medically manageable. Stigma - particularly in its enacted form - discrimination, involves disrespect for human dignity,” he added. “Negative labels and stereotypes pinned on those affected by HIV and AIDS add immensely to the burden of the disease, and discourage people from testing, from accessing life-saving treatment, and from speaking out about their own status.”
Citizens around the Commonwealth are speaking out as leaders against stigmatisation. Tahitian born Maire Bopp-Dupont came out with her HIV positive status when she was 23 years old and became an activist on HIV and AIDS issues. She is now the Chief Executive for the Pacific Islands AIDS Foundation, the Pacific region's lead organisation for the Pan Commonwealth civil society network on HIV and AIDS. “Living with HIV means today there is still a lot of discrimination. If you are going for a job...because you are HIV positive, you are not going to get that job, even if you are as good or better than others." Dupont said HIV and AIDS was a medical condition so it did not make people victims. "So far, we are not victims of HIV, we are victims of people's attitudes,'' she said. "In a restaurant, after you have eaten, they ask your friend, what do we do with her cutlery? How would you feel about it? The stigma and ostracising can kill people before the virus does.”
Dupont said that speaking out against stigma and discrimination was a natural response for her. “I have never understood the negative social implications that came with HIV. I still felt it was unfair when I myself got infected. Why the rejection, why the antipathy? Why cannot HIV positive people get a loan? Why can a young man not attend his own church but has to walk to neighbouring village church? Why is a 16-year-old kicked out of his family home and village when disclosing his status to his parents? Why does a wife and mother lose her husband, son, job and family? Why are people hung, beaten to death, tied to a tree, or stuck under a house and fed like a pig? So, I felt like it was a ' normal' thing to tell everyone. 'HIV is not contagious, it is transmissible and preventable! But HIV can affect anyone!' and HIV is hard to handle sometimes. Yet life carries on. But, HIV kills eventually, if we do not take care, if we do not have safe practices and most important if we do not talk about it.”
At the Commonwealth People's Forum in Uganda, November 2007, civil society members produced a statement with recommendations for Commonwealth Heads of Government calling for, amongst other things, the adoption of legislation to protect HIV-positive people from discrimination.
For more information:
Rowena Harding - Communication Officer – Commonwealth Foundation - Mobile: +44 7985 198 770