Discrimination and stigma compromise efforts to prevent HIV/AIDS, to control its spread and to provide treatment and care. They severely compromise the ability of people to manage their condition by creating stress, increasing social isolation and discouraging efforts to access health care services.1

Women living with HIV have to cope with something else – stigma.

According to UNAIDS, HIV-related stigma and discrimination is “a process of devaluation of people either living with or associated with HIV and AIDS … Discrimination follows stigma and is the unfair and unjust treatment of an individual based on his or her real or perceived HIV status.”2

Stigma can have “potentially devastating consequences on care-seeking behaviour.”3 Women might avoid prevention, testing, care and treatment services. Because of stigma, women might lose friends, family and intimate partners.

Women can live with the constant fear that their HIV status will be discovered by neighbours, co-workers, employers, landlords, family doctors, dentists, childrens’ teachers and service providers.

Stigma leads to discrimination. Many women are denied employment, housing, support and services, simply because they are living with HIV. Others might be abused if they disclose. The fear of how others might respond to their status can keep women from reaching out for support. Stigma breeds shame. It damages the way women think about themselves.

As many service providers know, in addition to the marginalisation that a lot of women face, newcomers often deal with additional vulnerabilities due to prejudice, culture shock, language barriers and social isolation. A positive HIV test result can add to the burden and increase isolation.

Women who come from countries where HIV infection rates are high may live with even more stigma because of stereotypes and racism about the “face” of HIV. Sex workers and women who use drugs are also stigmatized.

HIV stigma is rooted in fear, lack of understanding about how the virus spreads and moral judgements that label those who are affected by it. The more we learn about HIV, the closer we are to ending the stigma.

Whether a person lives with HIV, cancer, or any other chronic illness, each of us can play a part. What we bring to our communities means a lot more than any cost for medical care.


Examples of HIV stigma:

  • separating HIV-positive women from others
  • avoiding physical touch
  • sweeping statements about the kinds of people who have HIV/AIDS
  • gossip about people living with HIV
  • a landlord evicting a tenant due to her HIV-positive status
  • a boss who fires a staff member because she takes too much time off to go to health appointments
  • a doctor or nurse not respecting a patient’s confidentiality
  • a dentist refusing to treat an HIV-positive client


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1HIV/AIDS and Health Determinants, A Discussion Paper for the Ministerial Council on AIDS, Martin Spigelman Research Associates, January 2002
2Combating HIV stigma in health care settings: what works?, L Nyblade, Journal of the International AIDS Society, August 2009