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Stopping stigma with truth

Despite 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.

HIV-RELATED 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.

What 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 communities.

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 anti-stigma activity.

Local colour

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.

Partners 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.

Future action

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,” adds Gardiner.

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 Federation

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 with HIV/AIDS.

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
Felicita Hikuam is coordinator of the International Federation’s Global HIV/AIDS Anti-Stigma Campaign.


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