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'We are human beings too'

Stakeholders appeal for legislation to protect people living with HIV/AIDS

BY TANESHA MUNDLE
Observer staff reporter
mundlet@jamaicaobserver.com

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

A 24-year-old Jamaican man living with HIV yesterday highlighted the discrimination faced by affected individuals in an emotional testimony of his experience accessing health care.

The man, whom the Jamaica Observer will identify only as Tevin, shared his story at a symposium on HIV-related Legislation and Human Rights at the Jamaica Pegasus hotel in Kingston, at which destigmatising HIV/AIDS through legislative change was discussed.

Tevin, who admitted he was gay and was infected by an older man four years ago, said he missed his dosage of medicine on several occasions and dropped out of care twice because of stigma and discrimination.

“I use to go to a health centre but because of the preaching... she (health care provider) always a say, 'Yuh suh pretty, yuh look so handsome, yuh know you could a get a nice wife', and she was like, 'I got a dream about you say if yuh neva love man yuh would neva get AIDS',” he recounted.

“She ask me if I regret getting it and I told her I am doing positive things with my positive status and I am trying to empower people,” he said. “I believe I have been put on this journey for a reason.”

Tevin also shared that there were moments when he felt like giving up but was empowered to carry on after realising that he had been unknowingly inspiring others to take their HIV medication.

“I hope that legislation will (illustrate that) we are people, and it not only about treatment. Yeah, medication deh deh, [but] I might be going through a phase where I can't take my medication because of stigma and discrimination.

“We always focus on the treatment side of HIV and not the person, and I think that is where the shift needs to be; persons with HIV are treated as targets and not as people.

“[For example, we are told,] 'You need fi get tested'; 'You need fi know yuh viral load'; 'You need fi know this', etc, but all my other social needs are [being] ignored,” Tevin said.

Stakeholders of Jamaica's HIV/AIDS support services used the symposium to appeal to policy-makers to move away from primarily focusing on the treatment and prevention of HIV and start creating laws that will end discrimination and eliminate human rights' barriers preventing individuals living with the condition from accessing health-care services.

A call was also made by members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community and people living with HIV/AIDS for others to treat them like human beings rather than mere statistics.

“The truth is, for too long we have considered HIV as, how do we prevent people from contracting HIV, how do we ensure that we have the drugs to treat HIV, and at the Jamaica AIDS Support for Life (JASL) — that has had 26-plus years of experience in being on the frontline with people living with AIDS and with the population that are mostly affected by HIV — we are recognising that just focusing on the biomedical type of public health only approach is not getting us where we need to be,” JASL Executive Director Kandasi Levermore said yesterday.

She explained that the country will not achieve the desired results in the fight against HIV/AIDS if the legislative framework is not providing a space for development, and other sectors in the country do not understand that they each have a role to play.

She admitted that legislation will not change things immediately, but offered that it will send a message that the country is for each and everyone, and that everyone should be able to freely access all its services.

“Legislation for us is a way to change the thinking that you, as a service provider, can say to me, 'Yuh know, to me you need Jesus', when you need to write a medication or yuh can say 'Yuh a pickney', when you're in an abusive situation. By removing some of that, so persons can have a sense of accountability in their profession and to the persons in front of them, to give them the kind of services that our tax dollars are paying for,” she added.

Joy Crawford, co-founder of Eve for Life, which primarily focuses on vulnerable teenage girls, said while legislation must be dealt with, the norms and cultural behaviours that impact the responses to HIV and other factors that lead to HIV/AIDS also have to be addressed.

“It cannot be about medication alone. It cannot be about navigating some advocacy; we have to start a different dialogue in our country knowing that we have the power to transform the culture and we really have nothing to be proud of,” she said.

“We have a number of laws, but how is the culture nullifying, how do we continue to normalise the dirty old man who we have turned into a sugar daddy and accepted him to come to our functions with an underage child or in the bar and him brethren big him up, or you see him on the bus on the streets and it is just nothing?

“We have too many mothers and too many families with information and we don't want to share with anybody and shame anybody except the girls. The secrecy in community and families must be addressed,” Crawford insisted.

Meanwhile, Manoela Manova, country director for the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), said although Jamaica has a good foundation on which to address human rights breaches of individuals living with HIV and other members of vulnerable populations, such as the Constitution and the Charter of Equal Rights, there is still much to be done.

“We still have a concern that there is not a comprehensive anti-discriminatory law, especially to protect the rights of the LGBT community. We still do not have a human rights commission or human rights board where persons can access for redress of discrimination of human rights abuses.

“We know it is on its way, but how long will it take us to get there? We need this body urgently,” she said.

Senior medical officer at the HIV/STI/TB Unit in the Ministry of Health Dr Nicola Skyers, citing a study published in the journal of the International AIDS Society in April 2014, which listed stigma and discrimination as the number one barrier for men who have sex with men and transgender women accessing HIV testing in Kingston, said that reducing HIV stigma and discrimination remains a pressing problem.

She said that the symposium is a step in the right direction and pledged the ministry's support in ensuring that vulnerable members of society are not stigmatised and discriminated against when they try to access health care.

“It is not enough to provide places for persons to accept treatment; it's equally important to make the facilities accessible to all, regardless of who they are. It's important that those who work in those facilities offer the same quality services to all Jamaicans and it is important that the most vulnerable are not left behind or ignored,” she said.