HIV/AIDS related stigma major threat to curb the epidemic – HIV activist

By Lahja Nashuuta

WINDHOEK – The fight against HIV stigma should start at high level of leadership whereby people living with HIV and AIDS should stand equal chances to employment, access to scholarships and insurance cover regardless of their epidemic status.

This was strong emphasis made by Immanuel Sheefeni, Namibia multiple award winning HIV activist and man living with AIDS during an interview with The Southern Times newspaper recently.

Sheefeni is an entrepreneur, IT training specialist, business consultant, a motivational speaker and HIV activist.

He bemoaned that HIV-related stigma and discrimination continues to endanger people living with the virus.

It further discourages millions of people to go for HIV testing, out of fear of discrimination.

Many others choose to hide it while communities most affected by the epidemic such as sex workers, people who use drugs, men who have sex with men and transgender people remain highly stigmatized.

“We cannot speak of rooting out stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV/AIDS when people are still judged according to their status. For instance in this country, people living with HIV/AIDS are not allowed to be recruited in the Namibian Defence Force, police force neither qualify for scholarships while life insurance cover for people living with HIV/AIDS is unaffordable,” he said.

He believes this is one of the reasons why people are reluctant to go for testing because there is nothing that is motivating them to do so. Apart from community stigma, government is not doing enough to motivate people to go for testing or to reveal their status to the public in order for them to be helped.

“We have political leaders and influential people living with HIV/ AIDS but opt to hide. Such people need to come forth, I know it is their human rights to keep their HIV status secret, but for us to achieve zero new infection they should disclose their HIV status, so that those who look up to them as role models can follow suit.

“There is nothing to hide about HIV. It is disease like any other diseases that one can live with for many years. And whether you have it or not you can still pursue your dreams,” said the activist.

Rooting out stigma against people living with HIV/AIDS from the society requires a political will, Sheefeni said, while calling for stricter laws that tackle discrimination against people living with the virus.

HIS JOURNEY

Sheefeni, at just 32 years, is among thousands of young Namibians living with HIV/AIDS. He was diagnosed with the virus in 2013.

“I felt threatened, I was shivering and I couldn’t believe what the nurse told me. I was not prepared or thought results would come out positive because I was not sick.

“Of course, my previous lifestyle was awful. I used to abuse alcohol and to engage in sexual acts with different girls from different backgrounds without using condoms.

“I had lots of girls and I knew how to break their hearts. Those days I would make sure every week I had a new girl and once I slept with her then I would dump her.

“I thought it was cool to be called ‘a player’ but I never thought by doing that I might pick up HIV.

“I don’t know who infected me, all the girls I slept with were beautiful and most of them were just a one night thing that was done under the influence of alcohol and I don’t even know their names,” he said, narrating his irresponsible sexual behaviour that led to him to contracting HIV.

After disclosing his HIV status, Sheefeni said he suffered self-stigma and humiliation from friends and the community.

Sheefeni said his reaction to the news that he was HIV positive was “very bad”.

“I first wanted to commit suicide and later developed a strong hatred towards women and was even planning to spread the virus to as many women as I could. But thank God that did not happen. In fact, I later decided to seek for counselling and do my own research on how best I could live a positive life”.

Sheefeni remain one of few Namibians who publicaly declared their HIV statuses and are working hard to fight stigma associated with the disease.

He hails from a village in Anamulenge Constituency of the Omusati region, northern Namibia. Like in other rural communities, candid talks about HIV/AIDS are a taboo.

And he is a father of an HIV-free daughter. His HIV/AIDS activism came to public prominence in 2014, when he embarked on a 700km long walk from Ongwediva in Oshana region to the capital, Windhoek, in the Khomas region.

The walk was a form of activism and protest against stigmatisation against people living with HIV/AIDS.

“I wanted to do something that requires energy, to convince all sectors that refuse to hire people living with HIV/AIDS. The motive behind the walk was to show the government and private sector that we could do physical work too – that stigmatisation is unnecessary.”

This time around, Sheefeni who owns a cleaning company in Windhoek, is about to embark on an educational tour countrywide to educate young people about the realities of HIV/AIDS.

As part of his campaign, he will also be promoting the UNAIDS 90/90/90 campaign that calls for countries to ensure by 2020, 90 percent of all people living with HIV would know about their status, that 90 percent of people diagnosed with the virus would receive sustained antiretroviral therapy, and that 90 percent of people receiving anti-retroviral therapy would have viral suppression.

HIV/AIDS STIGMA A SADC TRAGEDY

Stigma toward HIV/AIDS is a global problem especially in the SADC region. Southern Africa is the worst affected region and is widely regarded as the “epicentre” of the global HIV epidemic.

Swaziland has the highest HIV prevalence rates of any country worldwide (27.4%) while South Africa has the largest epidemic of any country, with 5.9 million people living with HIV/AIDS, according to AVERT, an online platform that has been providing HIV and AIDS information since the outbreak of the epidemic.

Although all countries in the region conducted large-scale prevention programmes in an effort to contain and reduce their HIV epidemics, the disgracing of people living with HIV/AIDS threatens to undo these efforts.

“HIV-related stigma and discrimination remains a major barrier to tackling the HIV and AIDS epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa.

“Cultural beliefs about HIV and AIDS around contamination, sexuality and religion have played a crucial role in the development of HIV-related discrimination.

“In many places, it is thought to have actually increased the number of HIV infections by preventing people from accessing HIV services,” AVERT noted.

But according to institutions like the Southern Africa HIV/AIDS Information Dissemination Service (SAFAIDS) the issue of HIV/ AIDS stigma and discrimination would only get into the public agenda when people like Sheefeni and others living with the infection speak out publicly.

SAFAIDS, a regional non-profit organisation based in Harare, has noted that stigma and discrimination associated with HIV and AIDS are great barriers to preventing further infections and providing adequate care, support and treatment, and are found in every country and region of the world.

Stigma attached to HIV/AIDS is fuelled by lack of understanding of the disease and myths surrounding its transmission; and the fact that it is incurable and is life-threatening, and many other wrong beliefs.

Discrimination at the work place, according to SAFAIDS, is driven by unfounded fears and wrong perceptions that an HIV-positive person transmits the disease, would be unproductive or drive clients away once they get to know his/her HIV status.

“It is common for workers not to be recruited, denied promotion, benefits and staff development opportunities, on the basis of their HIV status.

“A consequence of this stigma is an increase in the financial burdens faced by most infected or affected families, as more breadwinners are prematurely laid off work.

“This consequence compromises family access to healthcare, nutrition, shelter and education, making their intentions to live positively difficult.

“Another consequence of this form of stigma is the premature loss of productivity that the workplace faces with premature loss of skilled labour as workers leave or are dismissed from work, or have reduced self-esteem and concentration at work,” SAFAIDS said.

REMEDIAL MEASURES

SAFAIDS indicated that there were strategies that employers could adapt to effectively combat HIV and AIDS related stigma and discrimination at the work place.

These include the development of a workplace policy that addresses HIV and AIDS stigma and discrimination, coupled with mainstreaming of HIV/AIDS issues into all organisational elements.

Other measures include by employing people living with HIV/ AIDS as a way of proving that they can be productive for many years once accepted and supported, creating a supportive environment for disclosure by providing counselling, care and compassion for workers.

And that organisation can go as far as introducing penalties for stigmatising behaviour and for HIV and AIDS related discrimination.

AVERT said in many countries, there are laws criminalising people who expose others to HIV or transmit the virus via sexual intercourse. But some of these laws are silent on progress made including that people are now able to lead normal lives.

“Supporters of criminalisation often claim they are promoting public health or justify these laws on moral grounds.

“However, such laws do not acknowledge the role of ART in reducing transmission risk and improving quality of life for those living with HIV,” it said.

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