Friday, 01 June 2012 02:30
By caribarena news
Antigua St john's - The time has come for Antigua and Barbuda and the rest of the Caribbean to realize and accept that HIV/AIDS is not a problem, but a reality; and that is an illness rather than the moral condemnation that some communities have reduced it to.
The time has also come to break the mindset that closets sexual preferences, creates gender biases, stifles education and ultimately leads to the increase in the number of cases across the Caribbean.
With the help of Dr. Earnest Massiah - Director of the UN/AIDs regional support team - the Ministry of Health is determined to not only mold the thinking of the populace but to reduce the unsettling number of HIV/AIDS cases in the country.
Speaking with the media on Thursday at the Ministry of Health, Permanent Secretary Edson Joseph said the ministry’s invitation to Dr. Massiah comes on the heels of a series of regional consultations on the subject, which have all been consistent in driving home the point of gender inequality being a strong component in the spread of HIV/AIDS.
The initiative, according to Public Relations Officer for the Ministry Colin O’Neal, comes as part of efforts to articulate the significant issues surrounding HIV/AIDS and gender inequality. The most “at risk” groups include commercial sex workers and men having sex with men (MSM) in Antigua and the wider Caribbean.
O’Neal said the proportion of women living with HIV has steadily increased over the last decade. He said statistics show that the number included women who are married and those with regular partners as well as those involved in the commercial sex trade.
“Gender inequalities are key drivers” to this rising trend, said O’Neal, and this creates challenges that have proven not to be insurmountable but will certainly take commitment and time to overcome.
In Antigua less than 2/3 of the people known to be infected with HIV/AIDS access treatment and care. It is believed that the “mindset barriers” contribute significantly to this number.
The PS said the issue is a “surmountable hurdle” and a “difficult challenge” when considered against the backdrop of Antiguan & Barbudan culture and the strong religious influence it carries.
“It would be hard to break some of the mindsets that we do have in our culture,” the PS said, adding that the first step is to hold talks with the necessary stakeholders and outline a path of address before making any attempt to make any inroads on the subject.
So far, Dr. Massiah has held talks with members of the clergy, Members of Parliament and the Prime Minister. He has also talked with known sex workers and MSMs who have come forward.
“Changing the mindset requires education but it has to be education from a different standpoint. What has been revealed from research is that wherever certain barriers exist that promote inequality, it is difficult for those persons who are most at-risk and are infected to receive care, treatment or education. Because it is hard for them to come forward when they know that there is a stigma attached.
“How do we break the cycle of our current cultural trend and be able to get to the point where we are able to combat HIV at a point where it leads to reduction not only in mother-to-child transmission, but from person to person?” the PS asked.
He said it is time the country rallies together and examines the issue from a more objective and broad point of view. It is this discussion that Dr. Massiah has started among the relevant bodies. The PS could not say how long it might be before any results are to be expected from such an initiative, but he has confirmed that the move is intended to last between the medium to long term.
According to Dr. Massiah the two things he is focused on at this point are simply breaking the existing mind-sets and removing the barriers. “Those are the big stumbling blocks,” he said.
Dr. Massiah said the debate is still ongoing as to what is appropriate to discuss regarding sex, and at how materials should be presented to young persons at various ages. He observed that the notion that “talking about sex would lead to sex” must be adjusted, especially in light of the wealth of information available to young people and the ease of access. He suggested clear and direct communication in this regard.
“We must realize that our young people can make intelligent decisions and choices,” Dr. Massiah said, adding that that equality allows everyone to participate and allows for the participation of individuals from across the board in the discussion.
Dr. Massiah is also of the opinion that the subject of HIV/AIDS must be integrated into all sex education programs in schools across the island.
Further, PS Joseph said, some of the recommendations from the regional consultations he had attended include the repeal of legislation that makes buggery and other things illegal. But this is where the PS sees his biggest hurdle.
“When we look at issues like the buggery law and we have a strong faith-based population, how do we say to (people) that something that is not biblically sound should be given free access? Those are some of the challenges that we face,” the PS said.
He pointed out, however, that the decriminalization of an act does not necessarily mean that the act has been accepted as morally right. But it does open doors for more people to come forward and for the authorities to have a better understanding of the realities of the situation.
The initiative is considered to be something of an integrated approach of understanding gender and HIV/AIDS, and understanding that the two must be considered along the same lines.