A middle aged woman, was thrashed, assaulted and driven out of a village that she called home. The woman belonged to the Hasnabad area of Parganas district, Kolkata. But, why was she thrown out? What possibly could she have done that was so cruel that she was forced to vacate her home?
The woman was suffering from HIV, and since the epidemic is still tied to the social and cultural values within communities, it deemed fit to just abandon her and make her leave. Women are the least powerful because Indian society praises patriarchy and male sexuality and mourns the births of daughters, and she committed a sin. She got infected with something that wasn’t even her fault in the first place. But, who are we kidding, a woman being inflicted with HIV/AIDS, is nothing but a taboo, right?
A taboo to be shunned, to be ridiculed and to be avoided. A taboo that disregards the human life, and treats them as an untouchable. When did we start discriminating sickness? Are we biased towards various sets of diseases too?
The stigma surrounding this particular health issue still fans the insecurity and already existing inequality and is often plagued with myth. While social inequalities facilitate its spread in the country, the virus, in turn, reflects and reinforces several myths. In addition, there is an absence of choice at the individual and systemic levels, whether it is the choice to use a condom or even to have sex. We cannot ask the male gender to use protection; it is a woman’s job to ensure protection by popping up some pills. Sexual diseases can come and go, but nothing should compromise on the ‘fun’ level or primarily the male ego.
In the last few years, prevention experts have shifted from looking at the HIV/AIDS epidemic solely as a health issue to focusing on other factors that increase vulnerability to infection. For women, low economic and social status, abuse and violence, as well as limited legal and social protection increase their vulnerability to HIV/AIDS. Their lack of voice and lack of means to actually ensure a disease-free sexual intercourse, is a rarity.
Women with HIV are subjected to various forms of violence and discrimination based on gender. They could be refused shelter, denied a share of household property, refused access to treatment and care, or blamed for a husband’s HIV diagnosis. Thus, fostering the myth that women are indeed the reason for all sexual problems; whether it is giving birth to a female or acquiring HIV virus, the blame goes on.
The need to introduce strategies to reduce stereotyping and discriminatory attitudes directed at people with the virus and to increase gender sensitivity among health planners, policymakers, the judiciary, and others involved in HIV/AIDS prevention and care work is of utmost importance. There is an immediate requirement to create awareness about the subject, as the lack of awareness further fosters the myth and unleashes discriminatory behavior.
If only we would move on from the discrimination that plagues women, we can focus on the epidemic that plagues most gay men in the world. Gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men continue to have disproportionately high burdens of HIV infection in countries of low, middle and high income around the world.
Let us move away from stereotypes, and instead of fostering the age-old thoughts, we can just take minimal efforts to be aware of things that plague people at large.