When it comes to HIV, I am positive. I am positive because I refuse to be any other way.
I am positive because too many people are negative about a disease that is neither deserved nor disgraceful, but circumstantial.
I am positive because 35.3 million people, almost half of whom are women, are living with a disease that has no cure. Of these women, 76 percent live in Sub-Saharan Africa and often become infected because of gender-based sexual or physical violence. I am positive because I cannot imagine looking at another woman negatively after she has had her rights completely stripped away through a violent act, only to discover she now also has an incurable disease.
I am positive because I believe positivity, action, and support create the best environment for sustainable change.
I am positive because when a woman in Sub-Saharan Africa is diagnosed with HIV, she needs an environment that encourages sustainable change, so she can access proper care, antiretroviral therapy (ARTs), and emotional and economic support.
Unfortunately, not all share my positivity.
There are millions of women who still lack access to ARTs, proper healthcare, and education about HIV. This is a serious problem. It’s also a serious problem that women and girls around the world experience physical and sexual violence at astounding rates, increasing their likelihoods of contracting HIV.
But what seems worst of all, is the fact that so many millions of women have to experience the diagnosis of a terminal illness, and are treated as less than human as a result. The negativity and stigma around HIV, is absolutely unnecessary.
The World Health Organization uses the definition of stigma as “an attribute that is deeply discrediting, which results in the reduction of a person to a discounted one”. Due to lack of education and awareness, people fear casual transmission of HIV, and often negatively judge those who have contracted it.
HIV studies in Ethiopia, India, Mozambique, Tanzania, and Zambia, have all found women experience more HIV stigma than men because of underlying socioeconomic gender inequalities. According to the World Health Organization,
“In Tanzania, almost two-thirds of women with HIV reported stigma, compared with less than half of men.”
HIV positive women also reported increased physical violence by an intimate partner after their diagnosis.
It will take years of education, awareness campaigns, and enhanced resources targeted to specific countries in Sub-Saharan Africa to change underlying gender stereotypes and socioeconomic inequalities that have helped create these stigmas around HIV positive women. Today, on World AIDS Day, I urge you to seek change in positivity.
I urge you to educate yourself on the facts surrounding HIV, and become aware of the unnecessary circumstances millions of people face beyond the physical illness of the disease. The People Living with HIV Stigma Index says it perfectly:
“It is not a moral disease, it is a viral disease.”
I urge you to be positive, compassionate, and open about HIV and those whose lives are forever altered by its stigma. Positivity creates an environment for positive change. When it comes to HIV stigma, we need positive change.
In the famous words of poet Maya Angelou I urge you to remember,
“People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.”