Need to deal with HIV related stigma

However, when asked if he knows any PLHA or would he socialise with someone if he came to know he is HIV positive, he didn’t have to think for long, “No, I would rather stay away from them”. Like many of his peers, the knowledge this young man seemingly has about the HIV epidemic is in contrast with the attitude he maintains towards PLHA.

Schools and colleges regularly organise AIDS literacy programmes, but rarely do they dispel the stigma attached to it. Students know it as another lesson in their textbook.

Low social contacts with PLHA give rise to such contradictions. Despite all the relentless years of HIV/AIDS awareness campaigns, the ‘them and us’ syndrome continues to prevail in the psyche of the vast majority, young are no exception, they only mirror the bias shown by society. It is one thing to be aware of the mode of contact, spread and prevention of the infection and quite another to be sensitive and competent to deal with one’s own prejudices towards PLHA.

Unusual attitude

Unlike many of the epidemic that has hit the world throughout history, people’s attitude surrounding this one and the stigma and discrimination related to it has been very unusual. In India, lower socio-economic status, poor literacy level, rigid social norms, cultural myths on sex and sexuality and its huge population of marginalised people strengthens the stigma and discrimination further. This stigmatisation is partly nurtured by the unfortunate link of HIV with supposedly immoral behaviour that has been so thoroughly promulgated since long and in part by misplaced beliefs, widespread ignorance and an attitude of denial. It is hard for most to accept that it can happen to someone one knows closely.

Despite being one of the few countries to initiate HIV prevention activities in the early stages of the epidemic, India has a dubious distinction of having one of the largest numbers of PLHA; approximately one out of every seven PLHA is an Indian.
Stigma and discrimination are not only among the worst consequences of the epidemic but are the greatest obstacles in prevention and care. Even after almost three decades of knowing AIDS, PLHA continue to be marginalised, discriminated and invisible.

Growing concern

Globally there has been a growing concern and research interest in HIV and AIDS-related stigma and discrimination, mainly by growing recognition that negative social responses to the epidemic remain pervasive even in acutely affected communities, seriously hampering the effectiveness of HIV/AIDS programmes and interventions.

There is a need to make a conscious effort to de-stigmatise the epidemic by ensuring more youth participation and making them the change agents. China for example has been successfully using a youth friendly modern technology — the internet to support a campaign on AIDS. This has generated a surge of interest from young people seeking peer support for AIDS prevention, treatment and care of those affected by AIDS.

India too can take a leaf out of such an initiative, garnering youth involvement through modern technology, which will go a long way.

It will only be possible to make progress in rooting out the epidemic when AIDS becomes visible, the stigma is challenged and people living with HIV are included in community-wide AIDS response. This will certainly require strong and willful advocacy and inclusive policies.

(This article is made possible through UNICEF)

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