US Ambassador on HIV/AIDS stigma...
Replace messages of shame with hope By Shirley Thomas
Guyana Chronicle
September 15, 2003

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United States Ambassador, Mr. Roland Bullen, has said that: "Living with HIV/AIDS is not a shameful thing." And he is calling on all Guyana to replace "messages of shame with messages of hope."

He is optimistically looking forward to the day when persons living with HIV can feel free to disclose their sero-status without fear of being stigmatized and discriminated against.

Addressing the launching ceremony of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) first ever mass media campaign aimed at reducing levels of stigma and discrimination toward people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA), at Le Meridien Pegasus on Friday, Ambassador Bullen who addressed the theme of the campaign - "Words Have Power", commented: "Living with HIV and AIDS is not a shameful thing. Yet we must ask ourselves why so many people discriminate. Why do so many make people who are living with HIV feel ashamed?"

On this note, the Ambassador stressed, "We must all work together to replace messages of shame with messages of hope."

The Ambassador outlined that the stigma around HIV comes from the powerful combination of shame and fear. And why shame, he commented: "Because the most prevalent form of transmission of HIV is through sexual intercourse, an activity surrounded by taboo and moral judgement."

He stated that fear comes about also, because AIDS is relatively new, and there is no cure. This has led to many persons being reluctant to take the HIV test, even though it is the only reliable means of determining whether one has the virus that causes AIDS or not

Ambassador Bullen also expressed the view that, the importance of Guyanese seeking health and social support services immediately when they think they have been at risk, or if they know they are HIV-positive, and need to seek treatment, this is essential in addressing the epidemic.

"Unfortunately, the fear of stigma associated with HIV prevents many from seeking these vital services,' Ambassador Bullen said, adding, "We must change this in Guyana." Unless this is done, and people begin to, the epidemic will be driven underground.

Stressing the importance of being able to disclose one's HIV-positive status to family members and other loved ones, Mr.Bullen said that there are cases where people are afraid to disclose their statues even to the very people they live with. That situation too, must be changed in Guyana, he urged."

Alluding to some of the words used in referring to persons living with HIV/AIDS, which have a negative connotation, or refer to the person in a derogatory sense, Ambassador and officials of the HIV/AIDS/STI Youth Project urged that persons refrain from using such words.

For example, it is no longer allowed for a person living with HIV/AIDS to be referred to as an "AIDS victim." Rather, they should be respectfully and compassionately referred to as a Person Living with HIV/AIDS or a PLWHA, thereby making them feel empowered to rise above any feeling of helplessness.

The "Words Have Power" campaign is a four-month mass media campaign intended to promote changes in the attitudes, knowledge, language and incidences of stigma and discrimination toward people living with HIV/AIDS in a minibus environment, the Ambassador noted. It was endorsed by Minister of Health, Dr. Leslie Ramsammy who has congratulated the Guyana HIV/AIDS/STI Youth Project for the initiative and observed that the minibus environment used from which to launch the campaign was very effective. He added that it is one place where Guyanese very often we meet, without regard to creed or culture, setting the stage for the kind of communication alluded to.

Meanwhile, Ms. Gillian Butts of the Guyana Responsible Parenthood Association, noted that, while the words we use can send different messages, we should all strive to ensure that those we elect to use, are words that bring healing, and not undue pain and hurt to the persons referred.

USAID officials explained that the main objectives of the Words Have Power campaign, are to change the nature and talk about persons living with HIV/AIDS in the minibus environment; increase knowledge of how one 'can' and 'cannot' get HIV; increase information seeking about HIV/AIDS and stigma and discrimination; and decrease stigmatizing attitudes and discriminatory behaviour toward PLWHA.

Developed by the Guyana HIV/AIDS/STI Youth Project, with support from Family Health International (FHI), the three month "Words Have Power" campaign aims to mobilize minibus drivers and conductors (operators) to improve their own attitudes and behaviour towards PLWHA, and in doing so model more respectful talk and behaviour toward PLWHA for their passengers.

USAID HIV/AIDS Advisor, Mr. William (Bill) Slater who has over the last two years worked alongside the Guyana HIV/AIDS/STI Youth Project, observed that: "Stigma and Discrimination toward PLWHA prevent crucial behaviour change from happening." He explained that, by preventing people from seeking information, and discussing HIV/AIDS, stigma and discrimination create an "us" versus "them" mentality in which individuals refuse to assess their real risk for HIV transmission and get tested.

Slater further outlined that, "Stigma and discrimination drive PLWHA into the shadows of society, where they fail to get care and support."

The campaign, which kicked off yesterday, will see project NGOs and select minibus operators moving from bus park to bus park, distributing campaign materials such as stickers; discussing the campaign, and how they can participate. And on September 21st

A DJ-led concert will take place in the city. The Campaign focuses on Georgetown but includes outreach in Linden and New Amsterdam.

It includes television, radio and print advertising; a telephone information line, street signs, minibus stickers, posters, banners and other paraphernalia - promoting the messages of the campaign: "Give Respect; Get Respect". Big Up People Living with HIV/AIDS."