AIDS Congress Stresses Fight Against Stigma

The top priority at a conference on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific was the battle against stigma and discrimination – a topic that consumed some three-quarters of a four-day AIDS conference which ended Thursday.

"This is a critical time for national human rights institutions to engage in AIDS response," said UNAIDS executive director Peter Piot at the 8th International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific (ICAAP) in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

"We have learned that we will not succeed against HIV unless we address discrimination, gender inequality and other human rights abuses that drive the epidemic," he told some 2,500 conference delegates from 70 countries, according to World Vision.

"National Human Rights institutions need to be full partners in the day-to-day AIDS response."

Issues such as the obstacles in enrolling HIV-positive children in schools and the lack of medical and moral support in countries such as Pakistan, Thailand and India were raised at the Community Forum.

An Indian student advocate shared her experience working in Andar Pradesh – the state in India with the highest number of HIV-positive children. She recalled visiting some villages in the state to address the issue of the stigma faced by positive children in school.

"They had in fact dropped out of school and faced immense hardships from the community," said Sana Tabasum, according to WV.

The group of student advocates, including Tabasum, played with the HIV-positive children and shared meals with them to convince the community that HIV is not spread by casual contact, thus there was no reason for prejudice against these children.

Tabasum said children who previously did not play with positive children, share food, or allow positive children into their homes began to change their attitudes. Moreover, many of the children who dropped out of school were re-enrolled as a result of the student advocate's community educational effort.

Faith communities are said to play a significant role in removing stigma and providing hope to positive people in addition to the prevention, care and support that many churches have increasingly taken upon themselves.

"Experience in Africa has shown that a well engaged and sensitized religious sector can play a critical role," affirmed top AIDS activist Dr. Noerine Kaleeba, founder of The AIDS Support Organization in Africa, on Wednesday.

Kaleeba emphasized that hope is a "real tangible outcome" which will help determine the success of the AIDS battle.

"I think faith plays an important role in the mitigation of the AIDS pandemic," she said.

Many people living with HIV have faced a "social death" because of the stigma and discrimination of society against them, where in some cases the family even distance themselves from the infected individual.

"Stigma is not a new issue in many parts of the world," said Kaleeba. "However the HIV related stigmas is particularly severe since it is both a life threatening illness and also firmly linked with people's minds and behavior."

The AIDS activist concluded: "Whenever we speak of change in AIDS we focus on change of behavior, change of practices but our experiences in Africa tell us that the most fundamental change must happen in our attitudes. It is not them who should change but it is me and you who must reflect on our deep rooted prejudices."

Delegates also identified other major needs and challenges in the battle against the spread of HIV in the region including the rise in the numbers of children affected by the virus through Mother To Child Transmission (MTCT) and the need for regional and inter-governmental leadership to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS through migrants and trafficking.

The 9th International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific will be held in 2009 in Bali, Indonesia.