Gender, Hiv/Aids and Stigma: Understanding Prejudice Against Women Living with Hiv/Aids

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Gender, HIV/AIDS and Stigma: Understanding prejudice against women living with HIV/AIDS

1.Background and rationale


The focus of the World AIDS campaign for the years 2002-2003 has been particularly on stigma, discrimination and human rights.

The main objective of the campaign was to prevent, reduce and ultimately eliminate HIV/AIDS stigma and discrimination, wherever, it occurred and all in all its forms. HIV/AIDS related stigma and discrimination are universal, occurring in every country and region. It is triggered by many forces, including lack of understanding of the disease, myths about how HIV is transmitted, prejudice, lack of treatment, irresponsible media reporting on the epidemic, the fact that Aids is incurable, social fears about sexuality, fears relating to illness and death (Peter Aggleton & Richard Parker, 2002:5).

Throughout the world, shame and stigma associated with HIV/AIDS have silenced open discussion, both of its causes and of appropriate responses. This has caused those infected with HIV and affected by the disease to feel guilty and ashamed, unable to express their views and fearful that they will not be taken seriously. And they have led politicians and policy-makers in numerous countries to deny that there is a problem, and that urgent action needs to be taken.

The power relations that underscore gender relations and that tightly intersect with discrimination of women mean that women are unable to say “No” to unwanted or unprotected sex. There are well-documented cases of people with HIV/AIDS being stigmatised, discriminated against and denied access to services on the grounds of their serostatus. At work, in education, in health care and in the community, people may lack the education to understand that HIV/AIDS cannot be transmitted through everyday contact, and they may not know that infection can be avoided by the adoption of relatively simple precautions (Peter Aggleton & Richard Parker, 2002:5).

HIV stigma doesn’t just come out of the blue; it is about deep-rooted social fears and anxieties. So, understanding more about these issues and the norms they reinforce, is essential to adequately responding to HIV/AIDS related stigma and discrimination. Otherwise, we run the risk of developing programmes and interventions that are not comprehensive, thus achieving little impact.

What is stigma?

Stigma is a process of devaluation. The origins of the word “stigma” can be traced to classical Greece where outcasts groups branded, or physically marked as a permanent measure of their status. A stigma is any characteristic that sets an individual or group apart from the majority of the population, with the result that the individual or group is treated with suspicion or hostility (Giddens, 2000:127). AIDS is an example of illness as stigma. Most forms of illness arouse feelings of sympathy or compassion among non-sufferers.

When an illness is seen as uncommonly infectious, however, or is perceived as somehow a mark of dishonour, the ‘healthy’ population may reject sufferers. This was true of people afflicted with leprosy in the Middle Ages, who were thought to be sinners punished by God, and were hence disowned and forced to live in separate leper colonies (Giddens, 2000:127). Even, in South Africa, the famous Robben Island has been a place where leprosy patients where kept away from society. Stigma is not unique to HIV/AIDS only. It has been documented with other infectious diseases such as TB and Syphilis. It is common with diseases that are seen as incurable, disfiguring and severe.

In a less extreme way, AIDS often provokes such stigmatization today, in spite of the fact that, like leprosy, the danger of contracting the disease in ordinary day-to-day situations is almost nil. While a person who is HIV positive may live for many years without developing AIDS, once the disease appears, it is effectively “ a death sentence” (Giddens, 2000:127). Its effects are...
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