HIV is a stigmatised condition, it’s agreed. To reveal one’s
HIV status risks disapproval, rejection or worse. People may also stigmatise
themselves, blaming themselves for having the virus.
How to reduce stigma is less clear. While we can legislate
against discrimination, tackling attitudes is much harder.
Anti-stigma initiatives are useless unless we understand exactly
what we are trying to combat and how we can.
Stigma describes something we attach to people perceived as
having offended against the way we think people ought to be.
sociologist Erving Goffman, in his seminal book,1 described it as an
intensification of the normal expectations we have of people.
“We lean on these anticipations we have,” he said,
“transforming them into […] righteously presented demands.”
Who’s this ‘we’? Well, it’s unlikely anyone is free of
stigmatising attitudes towards others. What do you think of bonus-grabbing bankers?
Of AIDS denialists? Even members of a stigmatised group can stigmatise others,
and quite often we do to those nearest us. In June, HTU looked at how having HIV is stigmatised by gay men (see Stigma Begins at Home, issue 187).
Yusef Azad is Director of Policy and Campaigns for the
National AIDS Trust (NAT), which has campaigned against both stigma and
discrimination in the past. Azad now makes a careful distinction between three
is the simplest of the three to tackle,” he says. “It is a legal concept, a
concrete and identifiable way of doing harm to someone by treating them
differently. It may be the result of prejudice or stigma but you don’t have to
look at motivations or reasons to prove discrimination.”
consists of unfair, stereotypical and usually negative assumptions about
someone else based on the group they are seen to belong to.”
Prejudices may still not be stigma. “Stigma is different
because it has a concept of shame attached to it,” says Azad.
“In stigma, a
belief system is actually shared by
the stigmatiser and the stigmatised. The stigmatiser fears becoming the type of
person they hate, and the stigmatised person feels [that] shame... Stigma has a
grip on people: that’s what’s so toxic and unfair about it.”
“Stigma is absolutely dependent on the stigmatised person
actually giving a damn, in terms of feeling ashamed,” says Azad. “Organisations
like NAT can combat discrimination, and we can even help to make public
expression of stigma unacceptable. But the only thing that stops stigma is for
people with HIV to refuse to feel the stigma. Why should they have to do this?
Because only they can.”
When the nurse put on
two gloves I was so humiliated, I mean who taught her to do that?
A response from the 2009 Stigma Index
Conscious of this, a group of HIV-positive activists have developed
an ambitious project to measure, describe, codify and combat stigma against
people with HIV: the People Living with HIV Stigma Index, a joint project of the
International Planned Parenthood Foundation (IPPF), the Global Network of
People Living with HIV and AIDS (GNP+), the International Community of Women Living
with HIV (ICW), and UNAIDS.
The Stigma Index is both a stigma-measuring and a community
development tool. It recruits HIV-positive people to be community researchers,
conducting interviews with other HIV-positive people and asking about every
aspect of the experience of stigma.
The Index asks about experiences only over the last year, so
that people’s memories are fresh and so that later years’ results can be
compared. Areas covered include:
demographics, access to healthcare and medication; reason for HIV testing
to others and their reactions
of exclusion from family gatherings, religious activities, social groups
and so on, or sexual rejection by partners
people had been gossiped about, harassed, threatened or insulted
in employment, education, housing and health services
feelings of shame, guilt, self-blame, being suicidal etc.
voluntarily opting out or avoiding jobs, social groups, relationships and
people knew that people with HIV were protected by laws such as, in the UK,
the Disability Discrimination Act
the respondent had ever helped another person with HIV, joined a voluntary
organisation, or been an HIV campaigner themselves.
Individual countries are allowed to ask supplementary
questions; for instance, in the UK,
there was a supplementary section on criminalisation of HIV transmission.
The Stigma Index relies entirely on people coming forward. Participants
are guided by trained facilitators and fill in the 24-page questionnaire
individually. Open-ended discussions and phone follow-up interviews are then
used to gather more qualitative data. In the UK 867 people, recruited through
community groups, were interviewed.
“More than we were expecting,” says the IPPF’s Lucy
Stackpool-Moore, who has co-ordinated the Index here.
Small pilot studies tested the types of questions in 2006
and last year the Dominican
Republic became the first country to conduct
a full Stigma Index study, with 1000 people interviewed.
Headline results found that fear of being gossiped about was
one of the most all-pervasive fears, but it also found that one in ten people
had been assaulted because of their HIV status, and nearly a third of women,
usually by their partners. Self-stigma was more common in men than women, with
40% blaming themselves for their own status. Only one in 44 respondents had
used the law to combat discrimination, but three-quarters had helped other
people with HIV and over a third had confronted or educated people who had
stigmatised them. About three-quarters had disclosed to at least one person
close to them but in a quarter of these cases they were ‘outed’ as HIV-positive
by a third party.
In 2009 the Stigma Index gained real traction. The UK is one
of about 20 countries to have conducted a full study this year, and results
will be announced at a launch in the House of Commons on 30 November. Preliminary
findings suggest lower levels of gossip, harassment and violence in the UK, but quite
high levels of stigmatisation by healthcare workers and educational
institutions, and higher levels of self-stigmatisation, shared equally between
men and women.
Some previewed quotations from the interviews bring to life
“When the nurse put on
two gloves I was so humiliated, I mean who taught her to do that?”
“I am an asylum seeker and people don’t want
people who have nothing. I am HIV positive. If I could get rid of just one of
Other countries to report around World AIDS Day include China, Thailand
and Bangladesh, and the
process is underway in the Philippines,
Pakistan, Mexico, El
Salvador, Columbia, Argentina, Zambia,
Kenya, Nigeria, Fiji
In the UK
the Index was funded by the MAC AIDS Foundation and the Scottish Government; more
money will be needed for a detailed analysis and report next year, which will
include the stories from participants to bring the data alive.
Are the self-selected Stigma Index interviewees representative
of people with HIV?
“Sampling is word of mouth,” agrees Lucy Stackpool-Moore.
“So they had to be linked into some sort of network. But many people had never
disclosed to anyone in their family, for instance”.
The main aim of the Stigma Index is to establish a baseline
for the future. The idea is to repeat the exercise every few years to see how
HIV stigma, or people’s experience of it, changes. The UK survey is big enough to get some really
specific results: “We could see, for instance, if people in London
had different issues from people in Manchester,
or asylum seekers from gay men,” Lucy says.
The other aim is to influence policy. Some prevention
interventions, for instance, may fail because they are ill-informed about feelings
on issues like testing or disclosure.
The Stigma Index won’t ascribe a stigma rating to countries.
To do so, given the complex nature of stigma, would be impossible.
“We don’t want to reduce experience to numbers,” says Lucy.
“But we do want to capture it in the most scientific and quantitative way we
can, and to ensure that the experience of people living with HIV informs future
developments that are supposed to benefit them.”