In Jamaica HIV Affects More than Just Health

Danielle Toppin

In a cultural climate with too many examples of stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV, a proposed plan in Jamaica to protect the right of HIV-positive workers could symbolize a major step in the way the country treats this key issue.

In a reflective mood, I took a look back at my past articles for Rewire, and in so doing, noticed
a common theme. I write a lot of the need to re-shape cultural
values, and the inherent tension that exists between those who address
reproductive health issues from a moralist perspective, and those who
approach these issues from a rights-based value system. I have seen, both
in my pieces and in others that I have read, the commitment to recreate
our cultural value systems through education, with the hope that such
efforts will shift the fundamentalist tides that seem intent on challenging
any viewpoints that are not based on religious underpinnings.

It is leading
me to ask, now what? This is a question (and in many ways a challenge)
that I actually want to throw out there. I want to hear real suggestions
and real comments. I’m feeling a little jaded. Although I unquestioningly
believe in the value of education, particularly as it relates to providing
information as a means of challenging the status quo, I really do want
to know how to move beyond the rhetoric.

These questions
arose after I read an article in the Jamaican newspaper, outlining
plans by the current government to implement a policy that will protect
the rights of HIV/AIDS infected and affected persons within the workplace.
In light of statistics that indicate that a large majority of the HIV/AIDS
infected population fall within the 20 – 60 age group, or the working
class, such a policy would appear to be long overdue.

Amidst a cultural
climate in which there still remain too many strong – and sometimes
shocking – examples of stigma
and discrimination
such a move could symbolize a major step in the ways we treat with this
key issue. What it could do is move the discussions
around HIV/AIDS away from a strictly health-centered or moralistic approaches,
to one that recognizes that HIV/AIDS affects far more than health and behavior, but affects
development at all levels – from the workplace, to the economy, to
the social advancement of our respective countries.

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the proposed policy also appears to address the gendered nature of HIV/AIDS,
an acknowledgment that will hopefully take account of the significantly
different ways in which women and men understand, manage and react to
their sexual lives, and by extension, the sexual health choices that
they make. Such analyses will hopefully take what has worked from
disciplines such as feminism, by fully incorporating key concepts such
as "power" into their analysis.

The policy
also speaks to the issue of education, calling on employers – in conjunction
with their employees – to develop "culturally appropriate" and "gender-sensitive" education programs that will collectively work
to shift the ways in which we speak of, understand, and deal with HIV/AIDS
and those affected by it.

this is a necessary move, as the lack of accurate information has proven
to be one of the major forces that retards progressive change — but
is it enough? When placed in a cultural environment in which some people
still believe that contracting the disease is a punishment for immoral
behavior (particularly as it relates to the issue of homosexuality),
how will such policies fare?

research has shown that there have been positive changes in local attitudes towards persons
living with HIV/AIDS. Access to information does play a vital
role in shaping our cultural belief systems. It does go a far way towards
debunking harmful myths such as "sleeping with a virgin cures AIDS,"
and "white rum and marijuana kills AIDS." However, when information
is not contextualized, and provided alongside concerted participatory
efforts to reshape our old, troublesome values, it can only go so far.
Which brings me back to my initial question: where do we go from here?

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Reproductive rights are a public health issue. That's a fact.

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