From the moment scientists identified HIV and AIDS, social responses of fear, denial, stigma and discrimination have accompanied the epidemic. Discrimination has spread rapidly, fuelling anxiety and prejudice against the groups most affected, as well as those living with HIV or AIDS. It goes without saying that HIV and AIDS are as much about social phenomena as they are about biological and medical concerns. Across the world the global epidemic of HIV/AIDS has shown itself capable of triggering responses of compassion, solidarity and support, bringing out the best in people, their families and communities. But the disease is also associated with stigma, repression and discrimination, as individuals affected (or believed to be affected) by HIV have been rejected by their families, their loved ones and their communities.Order now
This rejection holds as true in the rich countries of the north as it does in the poorer countries of the south.
Stigma is a powerful tool of social control. Stigma can be used to marginalize, exclude and exercise power over individuals who show certain characteristics. While the societal rejection of certain social groups (e.g. ‘homosexuals, injecting drug users, sex workers’) may predate HIV/AIDS, the disease has, in many cases, reinforced this stigma.
By blaming certain individuals or groups, society can excuse itself from the responsibility of caring for and looking after such populations. This is seen not only in the manner in which ‘outsider’ groups are often blamed for bringing HIV into a country, but also in how such groups are denied access to the services and treatment they need.
Why there is stigma related to HIV and AIDS?
In many societies people living with HIV and AIDS are often seen as shameful. In some societies the infection is associated with minority groups or behaviours, for example, homosexuality, In some cases HIV/AIDS may be linked to ‘perversion’ and those infected will be punished. Also, in some societies HIV/AIDS is seen as the result of personal irresponsibility. Sometimes, HIV and AIDS are believed to bring shame upon the family or community.
And whilst negative responses to HIV/AIDS unfortunately widely exist, they often feed upon and reinforce dominant ideas of good and bad with respect to sex and illness, and proper and improper behaviours.
Factors which contribute to HIV/AIDS -related stigma:
HIV/AIDS is a life-threatening disease
People are scared of contracting HIV
The disease’s association with behaviours (such as sex between men and injecting drug-use) that are already stigmatised in many societies
People living with HIV/AIDS are often thought of as being responsible for becoming infected
Religious or moral beliefs that lead some people to believe that having HIV/AIDS is the result of moral fault (such as promiscuity or ‘deviant sex’) that deserves to be punished.
;My foster son, Michael, aged 8, was born HIV-positive and diagnosed with AIDS at the age of 8 months. I took him into our family home, in a small village in the south-west of England. At first relations with the local school were wonderful and Michael thrived there. Only the head teacher and Michael’s personal class assistant knew of his illness.
“Then someone broke the confidentiality and told a parent that Michael had AIDS. That parent, of course, told all the others. This caused such panic and hostility that we were forced to move out of the area. The risk is to Michael and us, his family. Mob rule is dangerous. Ignorance about HIV means that people are frightened.
And frightened people do not behave rationally. We could well be driven out of our home yet again.” ‘Debbie’ speaking to the National AIDS Trust, UK, 2002
Sexually transmitted diseases are well known for triggering strong responses and reactions. In the past, in some epidemics, for example TB, the real or supposed contagiousness of the disease has resulted in the isolation and exclusion of infected people. From early in the AIDS epidemic a series of powerful images were used that reinforced and legitimised stigmatisation.
HIV/AIDS as punishment (e.
g. for immoral behaviour)
HIV/AIDS as a crime (e.g. in relation to innocent and guilty victims)
HIV/AIDS as war (e.g. in relation to a virus which need to be fought)
HIV/AIDS as horror (e.
g. in which infected people are demonised and feared)