From January through July 2016, I worked and lived in Kingston, Jamaica. I worked as the New Media and Communications intern with the Caribbean Vulnerable Communities Coalition (CVC), a non-profit organization advocating for the rights of those at risk of or affected by HIV/AIDS. It was surprising, shocking and interestingly exciting to say the least. Before I moved to Jamaica, I knew little about the HIV/AIDS epidemic but I can now speak with confidence about the topic.
As a refresher, HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus and AIDS stands for acquired immune deficiency syndrome. HIV can develop into AIDS (if left untreated), but you cannot have AIDS without HIV initially, and you can live a healthy life being HIV+ given the proper care and medication. HIV can be transmitted through semen, pre-cum, vaginal fluid, rectal fluid, breast milk and blood. Modes of transmission include unprotected sexual intercourse/sex without a condom, injection drug use, blood transfusion, and mother-to-child transmission. Key populations most at risk of or affected by HIV include marginalized youth, injection drug users, sex workers, women & girls, men who have sex with men, mobile/migrant populations, and prison inmates/ex-mates. Lack of access to services and justice, stigma and discrimination, and the equality of people living with HIV, all act as root causes.
Unfortunately, HIV/AIDS has a strong stigma attached to it as it can be convenient to make assumptions and consider an HIV+ person to be living a “risky” lifestyle. This is unfair. What if someone was raped? What if someone was born with HIV? You never know. But most importantly, despite how someone was infected with HIV is irrelevant, because we are all equal and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.
While working with the CVC, one thing that caught my attention was the violation of human rights of those living with the disease, most notably due to stigma and discrimination. So I wanted to gain insight into the lives of those who are HIV+ in hopes of spreading awareness and educating others about the disease, through the stories of those affected by it. I thought about one of my favourite community art projects called Post Secret, where people mail in their anonymous secrets, which are then posted online every Sunday.
After 6 months in Jamaica, I had collected over 50 thoughts, reflections and feelings from HIV+ people. Here are a few:
When any person is stigmatized, discriminated against, disrespected in the health care setting, or is subjected to violence in accessing HIV/AIDS services, the health and human dignity of everyone in that community are threatened.
Lesson learned: make no assumptions or judgments, because you never know what people are going through. You never know how they came to be who they are, or what their story is. Education is key – ask questions, listen, and then speak. Everyone deserves to be set free. Free from stigma, discrimination, and all inhumane acts.
After all, we are all equal.