|Stephane Tchakam, Charge de Communication Pan Africa ILGA|
The National AIDS Secretariat (NAS) has yesterday convened a sensitization programme to upgrade the knowledge of the policy makers, religious and community leaders on stigma and discrimination against People Living with HIV (PLHIV).
The daylong programme, which was held at the National Malaria Control Programme (NMCP), was meant to build the capacities of these target groups on the implications of stigma and discrimination.
The programme was funded by Action AID International, The Gambia (AATG) in their capacity as principal recipient under the Global Fund round 8.
Addressing the gathering, the director of the National AIDS Secretariat (NAS), Mr. Alieu Jammeh stated that stigma is a process of harming the character of a person in the eyes of others, adding that it occurs when somebody labels another person and sets them apart as unwanted.
According to him, AIDS-related stigma and discrimination refers to prejudice, negative attitudes, abuse and maltreatment directed at people living with HIV and AIDS.
He noted that they can result in being shunned by family, peers and the wider community, poor treatment in healthcare and education settings, an erosion of rights, psychological damage and can negatively affect the success of testing and treatment.
Mr. Jammeh further asserted that HIV-related stigma is caused by silence, rejection and isolation and limits the ability of People Living with HIV/AIDS (PLHA) or those seen as having the disease to cope with their condition.
According to him, it causes added stress and leads to discrimination and all its harmful results.
”Positive people are usually stigmatized because of HIV/AIDS is life-threatening and people are scared of getting it. Many people do not have correct information about the virus and how it is transmitted and is often incorrectly linked with behaviors that are considered shameful,” he lamented, pointing out that HIV infection is associated with behaviors (such as homosexuality, drug addiction, prostitution or promiscuity) that are already stigmatized in many societies and it is true that most people become infected with HIV through sex which often carries moral baggage.
According to the NAS director, HIV infection is often thought to be the result of personal irresponsibility and religious or moral beliefs or ‘deviant sex’ that deserves to be punished.
He further informed the gathering that stigma often makes one feel loss of self esteem, depression, guilt or blaming oneself, thoughts and feelings of wanting to end one’s life, harmful behavior to oneself and others, delay or avoid seeking treatment for fear of being identified as HIV positive which are all detrimental to the national programme.
Mr. Jammeh said: “ It includes giving PLHA (people living with HIV/Aids) separate cups, spoons and plates, not allowing a PLHA visits from friends or relatives by pretending they are asleep or away from home because the family is ashamed, separating PLHA from the rest of the family by hiding them, refusing PLHA employment or training because of their status, denial of health and social services to PLHA, separation in schools, being denied the right to marry, acting in a violent way towards PLHA, avoiding and rejecting PLHA.”
He emphasized that stigma and discrimination can be overcome by being more accepting of PLHA and providing correct information to educate people about how HIV is transmitted, strengthen counseling to help people deal with their fear about HIV/AIDS, promote greater involvement of people living with HIV/AIDS in community programmes, create open discussion around attitudes and values which influence stigma & discrimination, encourage companies to develop workplace HIV policies that deal with discrimination in the workplace, teach health care providers to become more HIV-patient friendly and make services meet the needs of PLHA.
“Stigma does not only make it more difficult for people trying to come to terms with HIV and manage their illness on a personal level, but it also interferes with attempts to fight the AIDS epidemic as a whole.”
On a national level, the NAS director maintained that the stigma associated with HIV can deter governments from taking fast, effective action against the epidemic, whilst on a personal level it can make individuals reluctant to access HIV testing, treatment and care.
Also speaking, the programme manager of Action Aid the Gambia (AATG) Mr. Dawda Joof noted that the aim of the programme was to reduce stigma and discrimination, while urging the trainees to participate fully on brainstorming on the strategies and ways forward on the issue.