In parts of Thailand, an HIV-positive widow can spend weeks searching for a job to support herself and her children. But word of her status often spreads quickly—and in a particularly stigmatizing labor market, she will likely face one rejection after another.

A program called the Positive Partnership Project, the brainchild of Thai AIDS activist Mechai Viravaidya—aka “Mr. Condom”—aims to help. Positive Partnership offers grants to HIV-positive people to start their own businesses—from taxi services to clothing manufacturers. Since 2002, it has doled out more than 600 loans. For many of Thailand’s 600,000 HIV-positive people, the grants are often their only hope for making a living when stigma forces them to be self-employed: Traditional loan officers often hesitate to help people with HIV.

Some activists, however, say the program perpetuates the very stigma it means to fight. Positive Partnership applicants must usually find an HIV-negative cosigner, or guarantor, typically a friend, family member or neighbor to get the loan. “This runs the risk of reinforcing the notion that someone who is living with HIV is not capable of having financial stability,” says Bebe Anderson, HIV Project Director of Lambda Legal, a civil rights organization in New York City. Justin Hayford, a paralegal at AIDS Legal Council in Chicago, wonders: “What happens to the person who is HIV positive but doesn’t have an HIV-negative person to lean on?”
Still, Positive Partnership, which gets some funding and assistance from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), could become a solution for people plagued by daily discrimination in Thailand. Viravaidya’s Population Development Association (PDA) staff ensures that the Positive Partnership helps reduce stigma. The negative cosigner is tasked with going out into the community to spread awareness and information—as well as supporting the HIV-positive partner by helping him or her access medications and other living assistance. The negative partner also helps relieve stigma—simply by showing others that it is possible to work closely with an HIV-positive person without contracting the virus. The interest fees that the loans accrue are often used to create new loans, showing how HIV-positive people can contribute to a town’s economy.

“Economic empowerment through the Positive Partnership program is a means of reducing stigma and discrimination [as] the community sees that the person living with HIV/AIDS can work and provide a new source of revenue for the whole community,” PDA’s Santisouk Phongsavan told POZ. “The partnership is more than a business one, since the HIV-negative partner assists the person living with HIV in the areas of health care management and community education.”
 Still, Hayford adds, living with HIV should never be automatically equated with insolvency. “Having HIV means that you could be perfectly healthy; [having the virus does not necessarily affect] someone’s health, longevity or productivity.”  

9 TO 5
A recent POZ poll probed how HIV can affect jobs and careers. Attention, human resources:

7% feel they’ve been turned down for a job because of their HIV status
8% have felt stigmatized at work because of it
21% constantly worried about getting fired
22% have switched careers
39% have not pursued certain jobs because they are HIV positive