Stopping stigma with truth
efforts to combat the disease, HIV/AIDS is spiralling out
of control with stigma and discrimination fuelling the rise.
Recognizing the impact of stigma and discrimination on HIV/AIDS
transmission rates, the International Federation launched
a three-year campaign in 2002 entitled The truth
about AIDS. Pass it on... Red
Cross, Red Crescent takes a look at the campaign’s impact.
stigma and discrimination remain an immense barrier to effectively
fighting the most devastating epidemic humanity has ever known,”
declared Peter Piot, executive director of the Joint United
Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).
Few people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) escape the stigma
and discrimination that often comes with the disease. Many
who are infected live on the fringes of society, their misfortune
often perceived as punishment for errant lifestyles. Drug
addicts, sex workers and men who have sex with men are already
stigmatized and HIV-related stigma adds to their burden. They
are driven underground not daring to get tested or access
prevention or care programmes, as they fear the prejudice
and intolerance of communities, which are not prepared to
accept them. The epidemic continues unabated.
In 2001, the International Federation decided to combat HIV-related
stigma and discrimination through its network of 181 National
Societies. “As the largest humanitarian organization
in the world with millions of volunteers and established humanitarian
principles and values, we have an obligation to make communities
more accepting and welcoming to PLWHA,” explained Juan
Manuel del Toro Suárez, president of the International
Federation. The truth about
AIDS. Pass it on... global
campaign was developed as a result.
is the campaign?
On 8 May 2002, the campaign was launched. It is working to
change perceptions, attitudes, policies and behaviour to ensure
that PLWHA are able to receive care and support, access affordable
drugs and continue to live full and useful lives within their
Additionally, the campaign contributes to prevent the further
spread of the infection and increase individuals’ willingness
to be tested, to protect themselves and their loved ones.
Around the world, Red Cross Red Crescent staff and volunteers
play a key role in mobilizing communities to reduce stigma
related to HIV/AIDS. The truth
about AIDS. Pass it on…
provides resources and a global framework for this work.
A publicity campaign that used the format of stamps was launched
on 8 May 2003 with messages that dispelled the myths and fears
of HIV/AIDS. Although initially slow to pick up, 18 months
later, many National Societies have adopted the stamps and
most have translated and printed them in their local language.
A new set of stamps — featured in this article —
will conclude the stamps campaign with messages about how
people CAN get infected with HIV.
In addition, an electronic forum, PassItOn, was launched
on 8 May 2003. This virtual platform enables Movement staff
and volunteers to share information and lessons learned on
HIV/AIDS programmes, and in particular stigma reduction work.
Some National Societies were reluctant at the outset to join
the campaign and many others took some time to develop partnerships
with networks of PLWHA. This changed as the urgency of tackling
the HIV/AIDS pandemic and the crippling effects of stigma
and discrimination were understood to be both a global and
a local priority. After two years of global action to reduce
HIV/AIDS-related stigma and discrimination, more than two-thirds
of the 181 National Societies have implemented some kind of
The campaign is a global one, but it has been developed so
that activities can be adapted to specific local environments.
“The global campaign gives a framework and leaves space
for local creativity and engagement. Each country and community
can adapt the message to make it relevant to its own local
context,” explains Bernard Gardiner, head of the International
Federation’s HIV/AIDS programme.
One of the best examples of local adaptation of the campaign
has been in Argentina. The National Society adapted the stamps
campaign and produced one with the message, “You cannot
get AIDS by sharing a maté ”. A traditional Argentinean
drink, maté is sucked through a metal pipe called a
bombilla and shared among a group of people, which makes an
ideal environment for creating myths about HIV transmission.
In Turkey, the red ribbon is a national symbol for indicating
that a child has learned to read. This symbol also represents
the AIDS ribbon worn to promote HIV/AIDS awareness. The Red
Crescent brought the two messages together for 8 May 2004
and developed an anti-stigma campaign using the slogan, “Start
reading! Learn about AIDS”.
In East Africa, the International Federation supported an
anti-stigma poster competition in the region using the campaign
signature. In 2004, a story-telling competition was launched
to focus on how HIV/AIDS, stigma and discrimination affect
the lives of women and girls.
in the fight
With a threat as serious as the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the
hidden nature of stigma and discrimination, fighting them
requires numerous forces. As part of its campaign, the International
Federation joined with the Global Network of People living
with HIV/AIDS (GNP+) to better combat stigma. This partnership
enables both organizations to further the cause of the anti-stigma
campaign and brings together the considerable expertise of
each to support the campaign’s goals. In 2003, this
work was formalized into a UNAIDS Collaborating Centre to
reduce stigma and discrimination.
Most importantly, as part of the International Federation’s
pioneering efforts National Societies and regional delegations
from Ukraine to Trinidad work to ensure PLWHA are key contributors
to HIV/AIDS programmes, particularly in anti-stigma work.
In addition to the stamps, hundreds of events have been organized
by National Societies to promote the campaign’s message.
From street theatre in Malawi, graffiti artists in Switzerland
to a three-day workshop in Iran, there has been no lack of
imagination on how to spread the truth about AIDS.
However, most campaign participants agree that it is time
to broaden the campaign beyond events or communication initiatives
like the stamps into a more integrated and programme-oriented
effort. “Stigma and discrimination remain one of the
pillars of the International Federation’s HIV/AIDS Global
Programme, but a sustained stigma-reduction programme with
integrated advocacy activities is more relevant after two
years of campaigning,” explains Bernard Gardiner.
The International Federation and National Societies are currently
defining what this will translate to on the ground. But two
things are clear: the campaign has been a resounding success
in mobilizing the Red Cross and Red Crescent to advocate for
the reduction of HIV-related stigma, and much more needs to
be done to protect PLWHA and prevent the spread of the virus.
“To utilize fully the power of the Red Cross Red Crescent
emblems as powerful social symbols to disrupt stigma and discrimination,
a continued, concerted anti-stigma effort is necessary,”
The greatest testament to the success of the campaign is
in the words of a woman living with HIV/AIDS in Savannakhet
province in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic who
explained that “until the Red Cross came to visit and
brought these activities [the stamp campaign], our families
would not eat with us or let us join them or the community”.
©Christopher Black / International
Photos against stigma
ALMOST as soon as the big white sheets were hung inside
the International Federation’s booth at the 15th International
AIDS Conference in Bangkok in July, people started queuing
to see what it was about. The booth, in a corner of the huge
exhibition hall, was printed with giant postcards from all
over the world, photos of National Societies working with
people living with HIV/AIDS, and stamps from the Movement’s
The truth about AIDS. Pass
it on... campaign.
But the special twist was how the booth’s nearly 4,000
visitors contributed to its look. Volunteers and staff took
photos of visitors in front of a poster that said, “You
cannot get AIDS by being a friend.” The photos were
converted to small stickers, so visitors could leave a portrait
on a blank panel — and take the remaining stickers as
a permanent reminder of their solidarity with people living
The photographers often brought strangers together, quickly
filling six blank panels with colourful photos of people from
all over the world including Buddhist monks, transgender people,
schoolchildren, a beauty queen, a Thai pop star, palliative
care specialists and politicians.
The photo process, the brainchild of International Federation
audiovisual officer Christopher Black, fuelled lively debates.
A group of young Thai women waiting their turn wondered if
they would be infected by standing too close to an HIV-positive
person when their photo was taken. A volunteer reassured them,
and answered their questions about the safety of other activities
too, including kissing.
Felicita Hikuam is coordinator of the International Federation’s
Global HIV/AIDS Anti-Stigma Campaign.