Reading this issue’s two feature stories, set on different continents—Asia and Africa—I was struck by how universal the issue of AIDS stigma remains today. Reporting from India, POZ shows how fear and poverty keep many HIV-positive people there from seeking proven medical treatments—in favor of panaceas from merchants who claim to sell an AIDS “cure.” In the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, meanwhile, we visit women and children who face the dual taint of sexual violence and HIV infection. In many cases, they don’t seek help for either, fearing ostracism from their families and society.
In an era when advanced medical care exists for those who can access it, I am amazed that AIDS stigma is still so strong that people will die to avoid it. I asked our reporter who visited the Congo, Jimmie Briggs, whether women who’d been raped would seek treatment, if it were available, to reduce their chances of getting HIV. “No,” he said. “They would be too ashamed.”
For a decade, I allowed myself to wear the mantle of disgrace that societies around the world assign to people living with HIV. Fear of what would happen if I were to “admit” (even the verbs we choose to talk about HIV/AIDS are laced with guilt) that I had HIV kept me silent. Eventually I realized I was wasting my life feeling shameful for having had the unprotected sex that caused it. And I realized that anyone who might judge me for having HIV had at some point likely made the same sexual decisions I had.
The world’s brightest minds are trying to conquer AIDS medically. Equal effort must be given to destigmatizing the disease. It won’t be easy. But if we could move the dial from distaste toward compassion, imagine what could change. People might not fear seeking—or have trouble complying with—treatment. Those living with the virus could ask for understanding and support. People would be more likely to disclose their status, get tested and use protection. People would feel more comfortable giving money to battle the epidemic, and politicians and governments might better address the issue in their countries if they thought doing so would win support.
Those of us living with HIV have the power to change how the world sees AIDS. But the world will change its perspective only if it can see us. So, with the National Association of People With AIDS and The Positive Project, POZ has created a stigma-busting website: www.ourdignity.com. It showcases, in video form, the stories of those living with and affected by HIV/AIDS. Check it out—and if you’re ready, add your story. I don’t believe that all people living with HIV must disclose their status. But no one should suffer alone, too afraid to ask for what should be every person’s unadulterated right: basic human dignity.
Editor in Chief