AIDS pandemic finds a friend in stigma
Agence France-Presse -
September 23, 2003
Sept 23 (AFP) - Titus, a shy four-year-old with human
immunodeficiency virus (HIV), carries
Africa's stigma against AIDS. Literally.
From his chest to the soles of his feet, his skin is pitted with the
scars of cigarette burns inflicted by his uncle and aunt, who took
Titus and his twin brother into their home after the boys' parents
died of AIDS.
Eventually, the authorities intervened to haul the abused child away
from his extended family and place him in an orphanage -- but not
before his sibling had fallen sick, withered away and died.
"Discrimination against people with HIV is widespread," says Irvin
Schwandt, an evangelical Christian who, with his wife Ruth, runs an
orphanage in Nairobi's outskirts where Titus and other abandoned
children, both with and without the virus, have been given a new
"If a child's parents die from AIDS, the child is taken into the
extended family, which very often already is under big financial
"Very often, the relatives do not want the child. They give
preference to their own children, giving them the right to eat first
and giving the leftovers to the newcomer. Some would even rather
starve the child or torture it to death."
The ignorance and hatred encountered by Titus is mirrored across the
continent, experienced not just by the millions of children orphaned
or infected by AIDS but by men and women, too.
Now well into its third decade, the fight against AIDS has shown
again and again that stigma is the disease's best friend, for it
encourages lies instead of honesty and secrecy instead of
transparency, creating ideal conditions for it to flourish.
In Africa, where 20 million have died from AIDS and 30 million
people today have the disease or the virus, discrimination remains
deeply entrenched, defying the appeals of Nelson Mandela and other
leaders to root it out.
"As the epidemic reaches further and deeper into societies, so does
the fear that surrounds it," the UN agency UNAIDS said in a report
issued on Sunday to coincide with the opening here of the
International Conference on AIDS and Sexually-transmitted Infections
in Africa (ICASA).
"In many countries and communities, the shame and stigma associated
with being HIV-positive have reinforced denial and hindered
effective action. Friends and family die 'after a long illness,'
never of AIDS."
Despite the bravery of people living openly with HIV, stigma is a
potent psychological pressure that can wreck prevention efforts, it
Many delegates at ICASA, running in
until Friday, said it was time to take a fresh look at how stigma
should be tackled -- including a mea culpa by people in authority.
"Religious leaders have contributed to stigma because they regard
the victims as sinners and adulterers," Sheikh Al Haj Yussuf, vice
chair of Kenya Muslim Supreme Council, said.
"It is still a taboo of sexuality. The link is: AIDS equals sex and
sin, because people are reluctant and fear to speak about it
openly," said a South African priest, Reverend Jape Heath, a
coordinator of African Network of Religious Leaders Living with HIV.
first lady, Lucy Kibaki, launched a campaign against AIDS stigma on
Monday, bringing in other presidential wives in