The stigma associated with HIV has existed since the epidemic’s beginning. Stigma is a mark of disgrace, a characteristic of shame or dishonour. HIV stigma comes from a fear of the illness, becoming HIV positive, the risk activities connected with transmission and/or from the lack of information around HIV. Stigma can be found in the general public, with friends and family, social service and health care professionals. It is prevalent, it is pervasive, and it greatly influences the daily lives of those living with HIV.
All people living with HIV experience stigma, and women are no exception. In 2009 women accounted for 26.2% of all HIV positive test results in the country, a significant increase in comparison to the rate of 11.7% prior to 1999.
Recently, the Times Colonist (a Victoria newspaper), ran this article about one woman’s battle with HIV related stigma. Of course the woman featured in this article was so fearful of stigma that her name had to kept anonymous. “Having this stigma is so anguishing” she shared, “it takes away some of the quality of life”. Not only her own quality of life, the woman expresses concerns about the possible quality of life for her family. As sole breadwinner her employment is critical and she would not run the risk of informing her boss about her status.
These concerns are comment among women living with HIV and we cannot talk about women without talking about the impact that HIV related stigma has on their families. What happens to women also happens to their families, and passing the stigma associated with being HIV positive onto their family can be a key concern for positive women. Women may also worry about the stigma associated with having children as an HIV positive women, and their reproductive choices might be challenged as family, friends or professionals limit their options to conceive.
The stigma associated with HIV is underpinned by many factors, and women, as an already marginalized group, experience unique overlapping levels of stigma. Stigma limits access to treatment and supports, increases isolation and decreases the overall health and wellness of those living with HIV.
Each person living with HIV will have a distinctive experience and understanding of the way stigma has influenced his or her life. So, how can we help combat stigma? One of the easiest and best ways to fight stigma is to simply be informed. Arm yourself with knowledge about HIV and how it is transmitted. The next step is to be prepared to share that information with others. AIDS Calgary has lots of resources, if you want to know more about anything HIV related please get in touch.