Regional forum notes persistence of HIV stigma, discrimination Ruimveldt By Iana Seales

Stabroek News
November 15, 2006

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A recent PANCAP (Pan Caribbean Partnership Against HIV/AIDS) forum noted that of the HIV/AIDS challenges facing Caribbean countries, stigma and discrimination persist as the biggest stumbling blocks but campaigns to effect change in this particular area have failed to have the kind of impact expected.

The question of whether the HIV/AIDS-related stigma and discrimination hurdle can be crossed given its intensity across the region was high on the agenda at PANCAP's Sixth Annual Meeting held in Tortola, British Virgin Islands from November 9-10 under the theme, "Redefining the PANCAP Strategic Agenda: Planning for the Future".

After five years of initiating serious dialogue on HIV/ AIDS across the Caribbean and implementing various key programmes, PANCAP has realised the need to revise its strategic plan to include stigma and discrimination and together with CARICOM used the annual meeting as a forum to launch the second phase of a multi-media campaign aimed at bringing about change.

The regional communication strategy is designed to eliminate and reduce HIV/ AIDS-related stigma and discrimination in all its forms in the Caribbean using communication interventions and media activities, and SFA Communications Inc. which is based in Barbados was selected to develop and launch a public education campaign in ten countries across the region this year.

Behaviour change

But even as the second phase is about to take off concerns were raised about sustainability and the frequency of messaging to effect behaviour change. Calls were sounded for the region to treat stigma and discrimination not just as a social problem but a systematic one as well.

Edward Greene, Assistant Secretary-General, Human and Social Development, CARICOM stressed at the gathering that the campaign must be viewed not only as television or radio advertising but rather as an effort to get into the psyche of people across the Caribbean to change the negative attitudes that persist. He said every country is distinct so the ad-vertising would not have the same effect across the region.

He said the SFA programme is a trial that could be duplicated in countries outside of the ten in which it was initially launched depending upon its impact.

In February 2006 SFA launched the first phase of the campaign under the overall theme: Stop HIV/AIDS discrimination…with sub-themes of 'What goes around comes around' and 'I'll turn around if you let me'. Underpinning the regional communication strategies are the messages such as, 'no one should be ashamed of admitting they are HIV positive' and 'we can't as Caribbean people deny a child the basic human right to live and a right for an education'.

SFA in the first campaign tells the story of Karen, an eight-year-old child who says, "My mommy and daddy are dead, they died from AIDS and when they died I lost them and granny and all my friends in school because even though the doctor said I don't have AIDS nobody wants me and it's not my fault. I'll turn around if you let me".

Radio advertising addressing the issues of fear and disclosure, the rights of the child and discrimination of a family member was launched while posters telling Karen's story and a few others were launched as the first phase of the campaign.

In Tortola SFA launched the booklet, "Stop HIV/AIDS Discrimination" which includes elements of the print campaign for continuity and comprises content such as recognising stigma; why persons should care and examples of PLWHA taking charge.

Brian Charles of SFA told the regional gathering that the campaign should be placed in the media for two successive six-week bursts to achieve a moderate recall factor. He said the booklets can be disseminated in any forum to sensitise the target audience.

"With 330,000 persons living with HIV in the Caribbean, the time is now for us to play our part, to be bold, to be decisive, to spread the messages of hope, to embrace one another, to force change so that we can proudly say in years ahead that the Caribbean is indeed stigma free," Charles said.

Changes in attitudes

He said the objectives of the campaign are to promote changes in attitudes, beliefs and practices of key stakeholders across sectors - government, health sector, employers and labour leaders and to create a supportive environment for the reduction of stigma and discrimination.

The target audience include PLWHA, youth, faith-based organisations, employers, media workers, governments, family and friends of PLWHAs and community members.

In developing the communication strategy, Charles said his company observed some of the major factors which fuel the AIDS epidemic as a result of stigma and discrimination: fear of discrimination prevents persons from acknowledging they are HIV positive, getting tested and seeking treatment; forces people to pretend they are heterosexual while having same-sex relationships at the same time and forces persons to seek treatment overseas to ensure their confidentiality is respected.

Charles said that in 2005 at a PANCAP/CARICOM advocacy workshop several of the participants shared their long term vision for stigma and discrimination in the Carib-bean. Some of the dreams shared included: "A winning cricket team that included an HIV positive player" and "A stigma free Caribbean, as different islands made of up hands reaching out towards one another - breaking down barriers - regardless of HIV status".

In addition to stigma and discrimination, key regional stakeholders at the meeting looked at what PANCAP has achieved over the last five years; reflected on the challenges it faced and discussed the way forward for the region.