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What is stigma?

Stigma means different things to different people.

This is one dictionary’s definition: “The shame or disgrace attached to something regarded as socially unacceptable.

There may be a feeling of ‘us and them’. People who are stigmatised are marked out as being different and are blamed for that difference.

“Some people when they hear that someone’s HIV positive - especially us Africans - they’ll be seeing someone who’s dying, someone who is not supposed to touch anyone.”

HIV is an infection which many people have fears, prejudices or negative attitudes about. Stigma can result in people with HIV being insulted, rejected, gossiped about and excluded from social activities.

Fear of this happening can lead to people with HIV being nervous about telling others that they have HIV or avoiding contact with other people. They may end up suffering in silence instead of getting the help they need.

Stigma can also result in people with HIV believing the things that other people say about HIV. For example, they may think it’s true that HIV is a death sentence or that most people with HIV are immoral or irresponsible.

Stigma is often attached to things people are afraid of. Ever since the first cases of AIDS in the early 1980s, people with HIV have been stigmatised. There are a number of reasons for this:

  • HIV is a serious, life-threatening illness. There is a long history of illnesses being stigmatised - cancer and tuberculosis are two other examples.
  • People who don’t understand how HIV is transmitted may be afraid of ‘catching’ it through social contact.
  • Some people have strong views about sexual behaviour. They may think that there are situations in which sex is wrong or that certain people shouldn’t behave in particular ways.
  • The way people think about HIV depends on the way they think about the social groups that are most affected by HIV. Some people already have negative feelings about women, gay men, immigrants, black people, drug users and others.

Stigma leads to people not being treated with dignity and respect.

“People just don’t understand it. They just put you in a box. If you’ve got HIV then you’ve been very promiscuous, you have been a drug user. Whereas people like X and I who were married and leading a normal life … we still end up…in the same boat.”

HIV, stigma and discrimination

Published February 2012

Last reviewed February 2012

Next review December 2015

Contact NAM to find out more about the scientific research and information used to produce this booklet.

This content was checked for accuracy at the time it was written. It may have been superseded by more recent developments. NAM recommends checking whether this is the most current information when making decisions that may affect your health.