ST JOHN’S, Antigua – Across the world, the HIV/AIDS epidemic threatens the lives and rights of individuals, severely restricting their hope for development.
Countries with the highest HIV-prevalence rates face consequences that include the loss of workers able to run government, businesses and vital public services.
This sets the stage for individual suffering as well as social and economic decline. Tragically, social stigmas related to HIV/AIDS still hinder efforts to stem the spread of the disease in all regions of the world.
In this regard, the Ministry of Health is seeking to start the conversation in an effort to articulate the significant issues of HIV/AIDS and gender inequality, and most-at-risk populations (MARP) such as commercial sex workers and MSM (men who have sex with men).
The aim is to encourage the at-risk populations to access the care and treatment available to them without fear of discrimination.
Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Health Edson Joseph admits that there will be insurmountable challenges ahead as the ministry moves forward.
One of those challenges he pointed out is legislation on the books relating to MARP.
“Bringing this discussion to the fore, I believe it starts with the key stakeholders – the policy-makers, persons who debate and make laws in parliament, those who have the political will to look at things from an objective standpoint,” Joseph said.
The permanent secretary, who was speaking at a media gathering on Thursday, explained that the country’s religious background and culture will also play a difficult role in this process.
He said the country lacked the necessary resources to make the major inroads in changing the nation’s perceptions.
“It requires education but it has to be education from a different standpoint,” Joseph articulated.
The ministry has also enlisted the assistance of Director of the UNAIDS Regional Support Team for the Caribbean, Dr Ernest Massiah, who is currently on island conducting dialogue with the relevant stakeholders.
Dr Massiah said the first task at hand is changing the mindset and removing the barriers to ensure gender equality.
“Equality sometimes can be a very difficult thing because it means we are going to have to start looking at our prejudices; look at stigma, and see who is not equal and how do we ensure that everyone is equal,” Massiah added.
Gender inequalities are a key driver of the epidemic in several ways.
According to the latest (2008) WHO and UNAIDS global estimates, women comprise 50 per cent of people living with HIV.
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