In Jamaica and Globally AIDS Stigma Barrier to Progress

Masimba Biriwasha

In Jamaica, as in many parts of the world, HIV and AIDS create a specter of fear and persecution leading to stigma, discrimination and, for many, the concealment of the disease.

In 2005, Jamaica – a country notorious
for homophobia predominantly channeled through musical lyrics – received
global attention for the killing of Lenford "Steve" Harvey, a gay man and an AIDS activist.

Harvey’s murder
was blamed on stigma and discrimination against gays, and led to a huge
outcry within the AIDS community.

The witch hunt against homosexuals
in the country is regarded as a factor contributing to the spread of
HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

According UNAIDS, the national HIV
infection rate in Jamaica is 1.5 percent among an estimated 2,700,000
people, and AIDS is the leading cause of death among 15- to 44-year-olds.
Predominant modes of HIV transmission include multiple sex partners,
history of sexually transmitted infections, drug use, and unprotected
sex among men who have sex with men.

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It is estimated that 33 percent of
gay men in Kingston, Jamaica’s capital city, are HIV positive, but
many of them opt to stay underground, away from public health services
due to fear of stigma and discrimination.

"The fear drives gay men underground," said Anthony Hron of the Jamaican Network of Seropositives
(JNPlus) in an interview with POZ
magazine, an HIV and AIDS publication.

In Jamaica, as in many parts of the
world, HIV and AIDS create a specter of fear, hopelessness, and persecution,
which in turn, leads to stigma and discrimination. Paradoxically, the
categorization of social groups perceived to be at risk of HIV infection
fuels discrimination yet creates a false sense of protection. In Jamaica,
gay men are heavily vilified in popular musical lyrics.

In many parts of the world, the social
stigma towards marginalized groups, such as sex workers, drug users,
women, men who have sex with men, and migrants acts as a barrier to
HIV testing or accessing health services.

Like gay men in Jamaica, many people
are unwilling to get an HIV test due to fear of stigma and discrimination.
Statistics show that of the 25,000 HIV infected people in Jamaica, approximately
two thirds don’t know their status.

According to Brendan Bain, director
of the Caribbean
HIV/AIDS Regional Training Network
heterosexual men in Jamaica are also reluctant to come forward because
it may be assumed they are gay.

It is freedom from fear and discrimination
that will finally empower individuals and communities to act, to mobilize
their resources, and to respond collectively and positively to the AIDS
epidemic, says UNAIDS.

Across the globe, the image of HIV
and AIDS ingrained in the popular consciousness is not founded on bio-medical
facts that the disease is manageable with anteritroviral drugs.

Instead, social and mental constructions
based on myth, misinformation, fear and ignorance fuel HIV stigma, and
inevitably influence discriminatory action against people with the disease
or perceived to be at risk. Equally true is the fact that stigma is
founded on some real life experiences of the disease, especially in
places like Jamaica where ante-retroviral treatment does not reach many

Being HIV positive is seen as a sign
of promiscuity, immorality or divine punishment and in such a context
naturally carries shame with it. Religious and traditional beliefs,
as well as legislation that perpetuates discrimination, is often the
root of such social attitudes.

In spite of the bio-medical and social
work that has been done to fight HIV, stigma and discrimination remain
like two towers blocking progress to effectively respond to the AIDS

In places where AIDS is the leading
cause of death, people inevitably associate the disease with death.
Many people turn their fear into disdain and discrimination of anything
associated with HIV and AIDS, including people living with the disease.

In many parts of sub-Saharan Africa,
for example, where public health services are dilapidated and access
to treatment is non-existent, people’s experiential knowledge of HIV
and AIDS often consists of seeing loved ones dying painfully of the

This undoubtedly influences the common
attitudes of fear and discriminatory behavior unlike in the developed
countries where availability of AIDS drugs has resulted in people with
HIV leading normal lives.

Thus, in Jamaica, like in many parts
highly affected by the epidemic, people prefer to live without knowing
their HIV status. Stigma and discrimination therefore conceal HIV, and
facilitate the transmission of the virus within the population.

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