UNAIDS, the Joint United Nations Program on HIV and Aids, has a mission. Mediterranea participates in that mission. That mission is stop the discrimination and devaluation of people who live and are associated with HIV and AIDS.
“Discrimination”, for us, refers to the unjust and hostile treatment of people who have or are perceived to have an immune problem related to HIV. It’s important to observe that even when a person feels a certain stigma towards another, they can still choose to not behave or act in a way that is unjust or discriminatory.
In Ethiopia, AIDS tests are free, as are the antiretroviral medicines necessary to treat the disease. Babies and pregnant women who have tested HIV+ are given preventative medicines. That’s not to say that all those affected are being treated, just those who have access to the medical services. However the country is certainly making progress against the disease.
Parallel to these advances though is the stigma of HIV, which is very much apparent in Ethiopian society. In Abugida, we have given preference to HIV+ children and they live together with HIV- children without any problems. This has been achieved simply because the parents of unaffected children want their children to go to Abugida and they know of our selection criteria. Most schools don’t accept HIV+ children but in Abugida the school is for everyone and everyone must live together. The good food, care and attention that the children receive is a big attraction for the parents and, in the end, all the children live together happily.
Regrettably the same cannot be said for adults. Here we have been pioneers by employing HIV+ adults at Abugida. Each day, however, we are confronted with the prejudices of some of the local leaders. They think that HIV+ women are not suitable to care for children. They believe that such women should not work in the kitchen. Unfortunately it seems to do little good arguing that for an HIV+ woman to be of risk to the children she would first have to cut herself, then find a knife and cut a child and then mix their blood together.
We continue fighting the discrimination that exists towards HIV+ people and do this in the area where we have influence, in the Abugida school. We continue to emphasize that being HIV+ is a condition only of interest to those infected not to the whole community. We are fighting so that people are not obliged to have an HIV test when applying for a job, where they would be discriminated against if the test showed positive.
There are 1,500,000 people in Ethiopia who are HIV+ and this is only the tip of the iceberg as the number represents only those who have taken the test. 1 in 7 residents of Addis Ababa are HIV+. Do they expect all these people to live off charity, not to be allowed to work and to be condemned to the margins of society and into prostitution?
We continue fighting the fight but it is not easy. The option we have taken at Mediterranea is to stand firm and not to permit any sort of discrimination in the area that we influence. We are winning battles but the war is far from won.