Five years ago, John, a resident of Kagarama in Kicukiro District, used to experience recurrent sickness.
He decided to take an HIV test, whose results indicated he was HIV-positive, leaving him crestfallen.
Since then, John’s life was never the same. He was encouraged to seek anti-retroviral drugs, but the thought of taking medicine every other day, and the stigma he was subjected to drained him of any hope.
Today, stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV is still a challenge, according to Rwandan Network of People Infected and Affected by HIV (RRP+).
In one such act, John said he was mocked as a ‘moving dead’ by some members of the community who knew his status.
This forced him to abandon medication before later resuming, he said.
Stigma has been reported in families, places of worship and schools.
A survey conducted by RRP+ shows that all the 66 people who were interviewed had faced stigma due to their HIV status.
The findings indicate that at least 26 men and 26 women faced stigma in families, 12 men faced stigma in churches, while seven students were stigmatised by their colleagues and teachers at school.
Against this background, RRP+ is urging the public to end stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV/AIDS.
Speaking at an event to mark global Zero Discrimination Day in Kigali, on Thursday, several activists said discrimination discourages people from accessing healthcare services, including HIV prevention, learning about their status, and enrolling in care and adhering to treatment.
The day was marked under the theme ‘No one should ever be discriminated against because of being HIV positive. Get tested for HIV. If positive, start and stay on treatment.’
According to Sylvie Muneza, the RRP+ president, stigma and discrimination against HIV-positive people has decreased over the years, thanks to awareness campaigns.
However, she says, there are still loopholes, especially among the youth.
“Even if the Government has taken different measures to fight against stigma and discrimination, there are still some cases present in different settings such as schools, churches and families. Some students fail to take their medicine at school or take it in hiding fearing to be discriminated against by their schoolmates. Others experience rejection from their family members because of their status, among others,” she said at the event.
Muneza noted that even with discrimination in community, HIV-positive persons have to move beyond their fears and be at the forefront of demonstrating that being positive does not mean the end of life.
She called on youth representatives to sensitise other HIV-positive members not to despair, but rather to take their medication as prescribed no matter where they are, saying it is in their own interest to remain healthy.
Fight against stigma broad
Muneza added that there are plans to work with other partners to conduct more in-depth research to come up with more representative data that would inform policies to eradicate stigmatisation more effectively.
Rwanda’s Constitution stipulates that, “All Rwandans are born and remain equal in rights and freedoms. Discrimination of any kind or its propaganda based on, inter alia, ethnic origin, family or ancestry, clan, skin color or race, sex, region, economic, […] and any form of discrimination are punished by law.”
In July 2016, the Ministry of Health launched the ‘Treat All’ programme aiming at putting on treatment whoever tests HIV positive.
The programme also calls for actions to end any form of stigma and discrimination associated with HIV and it is implemented across the country.
Ernest Aime Nyirinkindi, the in-charge of information, education and behavioural change communication at Rwanda Biomedical Centre (RBC), said that when people are stigmatised or discriminated against, they are deprived of accessing free treatment, which can also lead to failure to achieve zero HIV mortality.
He encouraged the victims to speak out against such injustice in order to enjoy their lives as they deserve.
Nyirinkindi added that RBC will continue to sensitise communities to end stigma and discrimination against persons living with HIV.
Dieudonne Ruturwa, the UNAIDS’s community support advisor, said access to health services is essential to prevent and treat HIV.
He, however, noted that about one in five people living with HIV reported avoiding going to a local clinic or hospital because they feared being stigmatised or discriminated against due to their HIV status.
“Zero Discrimination Day is an opportunity to highlight how everyone can be a part of the transformation and take a stand towards a fairer and just society. Allowing discrimination to continue is not only wrong, but also bad for communities, bad for the economy and bad for the future,” he said.
“Discrimination will not disappear without actively addressing ignorance, practices and beliefs that fuel it. Ending discrimination requires action from everyone,” he added.
Zero Discrimination Day has been observed every year since March 1, 2014.
According to the Ministry of Health, HIV/AIDS prevalemce in Rwanda stands at 3 per cent.
The 2016 UN Political Declaration on Ending AIDS, called for the world to fast-track ending the AIDS as a public health threat by 2030. UN member states committed that, by 2020, they would reduce new HIV infections to fewer than 500,000 globally, reduce AIDS-related deaths to fewer than 500,000 globally and eliminate HIV-related stigma and discrimination.