HIV shame, blame and stigma

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WINDHOEK – Along with leprosy, cancer, erectile dysfunction and obesity HIV/ AIDS is perhaps one of the most stigmatised diseases ever.

Other diseases such as gout though incurable with the possibility sufferers could be crippled, carry less social stigma unlike in the case of HIV.

The fight against this incurable killer is worsened by a society that seems to team up against men, women and children infected with HIV.

Positive Vibes (PV) director, Casper Erichsen, during the recent launch of the “Moving On Moving Up” project said PV intends to tackle the scourge of HIV by using a completely different approach.

“Stigma is big problem in Namibia, people are supportive when it comes to diseases like cancer and diabetes but when it comes to HIV/AIDS we are scared that those close to us will reject us and turn their backs on us and that is completely wrong. Most family members will love you no matter what disease you have – HIV is just a virus, like flu,” says Erichsen.

“The difference is that it is sexually transmitted and people think anything to do with sexuality is something bad and something to be ashamed of.  A pregnant woman and a person living with HIV are the same – both have had unprotected sex. With one we think you are wonderful, you are glowing and with the other we think you have done something bad – somehow we think if it is associated with sexuality it is bad. It is human behaviour and we must get over this mental hurdle that people living with HIV have done something wrong – except being unfortunate in that they have a virus in their bodies,” added Erichsen.

Erichsen believes HIV information is only truly important when people relate it to themselves – “instead of dealing with abstract information people will start relating HIV to themselves as individuals and what it has got to do with them,” said Erichsen.

The information overload on the topic of HIV is having a negative and reversed effect on society.  “We have heard about HIV and AIDS for the last 20 years or something and we are just being bombarded with information and I think there is a level of information overload where we are beginning to switch off,” says Erichsen.

The PV group asks people to reflect differently in a more personal way by looking at what it means to individuals by focusing on where HIV features in their personal lives, and asking questions such as, are they themselves or someone they know living with HIV as well as how they are addressing it.

A partner of the PV group, a network of people living with HIV has a newsletter and SMS line in place in an attempt to bring out the voices of people living with HIV because it is important.

“The newsletter is not meant for the wider public – this is  a means of communication among support groups of people living with HIV, talking about issues affecting them,” added Erichsen.

During the interview, the PV director also mentioned the lack of participation by men in the group and in fact general participation was poor. “Amongst the youth it does not seem to be that much of a problem, I think young men and teenagers are willing to get involved. The people in their late 20’s, 30’s and 40’s – we are the ones who turn our backs, because we would rather be at the shibeen drinking instead of facing these big problems in our lives,” said Erichsen.

He added that although men want these big problems to go away they perhaps lack the courage to face these big issues head-on and deal with them. According to Erichsen, the lack of participation is a global trend which is not just restricted to Namibia. “That is just the way we are as men,” he added. He did however suggest looking at new ways of engaging men, ways they would find appealing.

The PV group works with people from all over the country, from the rural areas to the suburbs but most of their interventions focus on rural areas because of the many issues plaguing people in rural areas.

“But we are not forgetting the urban areas, because it is so easy to think they are well off. Urban areas are equally important, we often think people in urban areas have access to services and that is not necessarily the case,” said Erichsen.

By John Travolter Matali

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