Stigma and Discrimination

HIV and AIDS related stigma refers to the prejudice, negative attitudes, abuse and mistreatment of people living with HIV and AIDS. There are a number of reasons why people living with HIV and AIDS are stigmatised including fear of death and disease (especially because HIV and AIDS are relatively new diseases), lack of knowledge about HIV and AIDS, dominant sexual beliefs and values (such as the belief that you can only become infected if you are promiscuous or have homosexual sex, which are already stigmatised in a number of societies) and ongoing myths and misunderstandings about HIV and AIDS . The lack of effective recognition of stigma and its results often perpetuates the situation and, in fact, makes it worse. It demeans people living with HIV and AIDS and can make it more difficult for them to live with the disease.

“HIV and AIDS do not stigmatise. People do.”

Michael J Kelly (2010)

Stigma is a process where differences between people are pointed out with disapproval and differences are blamed on negative behaviour (promiscuity etc). People are then rejected or shunned because of these differences, leaving them feeling alone and isolated. As a result of this stigma:

  • Women are often unable to discuss the HIV virus with their husbands or partners or how to protect their family against infection and vice versa.
  • Couples living together may not disclose their status to their partners and/or the fact that they are on medication. This then exposes the partner to infection if the person is positive.
  • People are afraid to disclose their HIV status to others for fear of being stigmatised.
  • People can often be afraid to go for counselling and testing.
  • People may feel rejected, condemned or useless. They may feel they have to leave their job or community, or may even be forced out.
  • Young people may even leave school as a result of stigma.
  • In extreme situations, it can lead to depression, alcoholism and sometimes even suicide.
  • It can slow down, and in some cases reverse, the progress made in development projects that encourage individuals living with HIV and their families to combat the issues.

There are three types of stigma associated with HIV and AIDS:

  1. Self-stigma: Some people become ashamed of themselves, blame themselves and then isolate themselves. This can lead to depression and possibly make the person more ill.
  2. Stigmatising from others: As a result of the attitudes and beliefs people have about HIV and AIDS, they stigmatise people living with HIV and AIDS, for example shunning or isolating them from their community, refusing to share water, plates, cups, spoons etc for fear of infection. This can in turn lead to or worsen self-stigma.
  3. Practising discrimination based on stigma: When people use their unfair judgements to actively discriminate a person living with HIV (excluding people from community groups, or even firing someone from their job as a result)

It is very important that the stigma surrounding HIV and AIDS is directly challenged. It will continue to exist as long as there is a lack of knowledge around the disease itself and the damage negative attitudes towards people living with HIV and AIDS can have on them. It seems the only way to deal with stigma and discrimination is through proper HIV and AIDS education, especially at community level. This is what is needed to tackle the fear that drives this stigma.

“We can fight stigma. Enlightened laws and policies are key. But it begins with openness, the courage to speak out. Schools should teach respect and understanding. Religious leaders should preach tolerance. The media should condemn prejudice and use its influences to advance social change, from securing legal protections to ensuring access to health care.

Ban Ki-moon (2008)

For more information see: World Aids Day 2010 – Briefing Paper (PDF 164 kb)