UN Secretary General discusses stigma

Marking the occasion of the 17th International AIDS Conference last week, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon wrote a rather beautiful opinion piece for the Washington Times.  In it, he discusses the progress made in recent years, and the inspiration he has drawn from courageous and vivacious people living with HIV.  “And yet, we must remember,” he says, “One of the biggest hurdles for our global response to AIDS is psychological.”

That is the stigma factor. To greater or lesser degrees, almost everywhere in the world, discrimination remains a fact of daily life for people living with HIV. One-third of all countries have virtually no laws protecting their rights. Almost all permit at least some form of discrimination – against women and children who contract the disease, against gay men, against communities at risk.

Stigma remains the single most important barrier to public action. It is the main reason too many people are afraid to see a doctor to determine whether they have the disease, or to seek treatment if so. It helps make AIDS the silent killer, because people fear the social disgrace of speaking about it, or taking easily available precautions. Stigma is a chief reason the AIDS epidemic continues to devastate societies around the world.

We can fight stigma. Enlightened laws and policies are key. But it begins with openness, the courage to speak out. Fortunately, more and more people are finding their voices. […]

Ban mentions several people living with HIV/AIDS who have helped form and strengthen his personal commitment to combatting stigma, including some of his UN colleagues, and Keren Gonzalez, the 12-year-old HIV/AIDS activist from Honduras who spoke at the opening session of this year’s International AIDS Conference.  He continues:

At the Global Village, a center for community activism at the conference, there were others – dancers, civil society leaders, even hairdressers – living with HIV, richly and happily and openly. Among them was a woman from Malawi, Maroc Daphane Jwonde, who learned she had the disease in 1999 after her husband grew sick. Fighting discrimination ever since – one co-worker asked her not to use the dishes in their shared kitchen – she asked me to use her story to “make change in the world.”

Such people are at the heart of the global campaign against AIDS. It is impossible not to admire their courage and commitment. Yet their efforts, alone, are not enough.

In Mexico City, I called on world leaders to join them, to speak out against discrimination and to guarantee the rights of people living with HIV. Schools should teach respect and understanding. Religious leaders should preach tolerance. The media should condemn prejudice and use its influence to advance social change, from securing legal protections to ensuring access to health care.

Above all, we must recognize that those who bear the stigma of HIV should not be those who live with the disease. It is those who allow it.

I’ve included some large excerpts of Ban’s article because I think it is eloquent and quite moving.  I’d definitely recommend reading the whole thing if you have the chance.

It’s great to see such an important figure on the world stage speaking out so publicly–and, it seems, so much from the heart–against stigma and for openness and compassion for those with HIV/AIDS.

Earlier today I wrote this post, which also deals with issues of stigma and discrimination.

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~ by h.e.g. on August 10, 2008.

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