Ending the HIV stigma

The Caribbean response to HIV reads like a success story. Since 2001 there has been a 54 per cent decline in deaths due to AIDS, while new HIV infections have dropped by 49 per cent. Twenty times more people are on treatment now than there were ten years ago. And several countries are on track to eliminate HIV in children by 2015.

But many dark chapters remain. Stigma and discrimination still hamper efforts towards reducing infections, increasing treatment levels and ensuring that all people live full, productive lives. Prejudice towards people living with HIV and other key populations such as men who have sex with men, transgender people, sex workers, people who use drugs, homeless people and prisoners, remains a major obstacle throughout the region.

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“HIV is a by-product of social inequities,” said Carolyn Gomes, executive director of the Caribbean Vulnerable Communities Coalition. She was speaking at the Caribbean Consultation On Justice For All And The Human Rights Agenda in Kingston, Jamaica. “We need a bottom-up approach. We have to find ways to be heard. We have to apply resources to what we know would bring about transformative change.”

The Justice For All initiative is meant to link the voices and actions of Gomes and other members of civil society with governments, faith communities and the private sector. It is an attempt to collectively propel Caribbean countries towards improving citizens’ access to justice and equity.

It also aims to build alliances in order to increase awareness and support for human rights. Coordinated by the Pan-Caribbean Partnership Against HIV and AIDS (PANCAP), the effort is led by the United Nations Secretary General’s Special Envoy on HIV for the Caribbean Professor Edward Greene and supported by the Joint United Nations Programme On HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS).

“The world now knows what to do to end this epidemic,” UNAIDS deputy executive director Luiz Loures told participants. “We have the tools but we have entered a phase in which some people are getting left behind. The Caribbean is part of this contradiction. The general epidemic is going down but there are still laws, attitudes and practices that stop us from getting to the end of the epidemic.”

Loures encouraged participants in the consultation to choose concrete targets and milestones to chart their progress towards ending stigma and discrimination. Executive director of the Global Fund, Mark Dybul, noted that this regional approach to building a culture of respecting human rights                was unique.

“The Caribbean can become the leader in ending AIDS,” Dybul said. “We are at a historic moment when we can end AIDS as a public health threat. No other epidemic is pushing us to respond to one another differently and to embrace everyone, every small subset of people, as part of the human family.”

Greene identified key areas of focus, including reducing gender inequality, promoting sexual and reproductive health and rights in the context of self-worth and repealing discriminatory laws that infringe human rights. Sex between men is a criminal offence in 11 nations in the region and several Caribbean countries prohibit aspects of sex work. A handful of countries also have laws that restrict entry on the basis of sexual orientation, HIV status and disability. St Kitts and Nevis’ Prime Minister Denzil Douglas promised that Justice For All would be a focus of discussion for the region’s political leaders. The consultation, which ends today, aims to refine a declaration for approval by pan-Caribbean Heads of Government which includes “actionable recommendations for removing structural barriers to human rights”.

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