FotoshopTofsIn Jamaica, at the onset of the HIV and AIDS pandemic in the 1980s, being HIV positive was considered a death sentence and the truth is that a number of people died in the early years of the pandemic. Fear, anxiety, uncertainties, homophobia, stigma, and discrimination led the way as people at all levels of society went into panic mode rather than show genuine care and support for the infected and affected. Indeed, with still much uncertainty about the treatment required and phobia relating to the idea that this was a homosexual or gay disease, in a context in which fear of homosexuality was like a pandemic, in itself. Those who were infected were condemned twice. That is, they were infected with a virus that would most certainly lead to their death with complications from AIDS, bearing in mind that even in death some religious leaders and groups, would not conduct their funerals, and they would also suffer the stigma relating to spiritual, social, ideological, economic, and political engagements. The consensus is that these were the dark ages of the pandemic and yet there were numerous signs of hope as some individuals risked their lives to intervene to care for the infected and affected.
Stigma and discrimination
Fast forward to 2023 and one would think that with advances in science, research, development and almost one hundred per cent increase in knowledge, attitude and behaviour, the level of stigma and discrimination towards people living with HIV, their family and loved ones would change. Not so. Recently, I was informed that JN+ has data, through their stigma index, indicating that women in Jamaica who are HIV positive are being sterilized or deprived of the possibility of getting pregnant due to the very wrong and harmful perception that they are not to give birth to children due to the risk of passing HIV to the unborn child.
I am grateful, not just to scientific and medical advances, but to an Anglican priest, Canon Gideon Byamugisha from Uganda who, in 1992, became the first religious leader in Africa to publicly announce that he was HIV positive. Years later, when we spoke during a visit to Jamaica and the United Theological College of the West Indies where he addressed an audience of students, faculty and various stakeholders in the fight against HIV, Canon Gideon indicated that he and his wife Pamela (who is also HIV positive) have two daughters whose names are Love and Gift, who are HIV negative.
The issue of why there would be a need to sterilize women of child-bearing age without their consent raises not just concern about stigma and discrimination but also worry about the state of human rights and social justice in our beloved country. Stigma is placing a label on someone without their consent, as in the practice of branding the enslaved with the names of their masters during the period of enslavement in Jamaica and other places in the Caribbean. Discrimination is putting people in categories or status based on perceived natural or social designations which it is determined best suits their name, age, gender, sexual orientation or place of residence.
Right the wrong
Put together, and especially detrimental in the case of women and girls who are often stigmatized and discriminated against, based purely on gender, this serves to undermine their sense of identity as authentic human beings. Men and boys are not to be left out as, in a context in which, according to the late Professor Barry Chevannes, boys receive their socialization on the streets rather than at home, and with the general view that ‘man must have nuff gal’ or ‘gal in a bungle’, according to a popular reggae artist, it is no wonder some men feel pressured to father children for whom they take little or no responsibility. At the same time, though this orientation and socialization of males go back to the plantation and with the tide now shifting to more men taking responsibility for their children, there are signs that tremendous steps are being taken to right the wrongs of the past.
In this context and bearing in mind that the rate of HIV in Jamaica still stands at approximately two persons out of every 100,000 infected is an indication that the rate of mother to child transmission has decreased significantly. The question, then, is why are there reports of discrimination against women of child bearing age that are HIV positive? Women are as important as any other Jamaican, and everything is to be done to ensure their human rights are protected, preserved and promoted at all cost. Furthermore, those who were reportedly sterilized without their consent must be encouraged to seek redress through the appropriate legal channels.
Advocacy for justice
In the meantime, all people of goodwill must let their voices be heard for and on behalf of those who are marginalized in society. Indeed, as Martin Luther King Jr reminds us, injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere, and with the Charter of Rights now well enshrined in the Jamaican constitution, accompanied by the requisite protection of the rights of women, girls, men, and boys, every step must be taken to protect all citizens. Our future will only be guaranteed if women who are HIV positive are guaranteed that a HIV positive status is not reason to avoid getting pregnant and giving birth to more handsome and beautiful boys and girls. Social justice for HIV-positive pregnant women matters.
The Rt. Rev Garth Minott is the Suffragan Bishop of Kingston.