The stigma and discrimination faced by people living with HIV/AIDS continues to be a roadblock for access to critical prevention and care. Yet every day I see significant steps that are being taken to overcome this obstacle, especially efforts led by USAID.
I was invited to speak at the USAID-funded Panos Caribbean media launch of its latest publication, “Speaking Out! Voices of Jamaican MSM.” This publication is a compilation of oral testimonies from the men having sex with men (MSM) community in Jamaica and an important product by the Panos Caribbean/World Learning project which works to strengthen and improve the livelihoods of these men. Through this publication, Panos Caribbean develops public awareness about the issues affecting the MSM community and promotes through the media, tolerance and accountability for MSM who are impacted by HIV/AIDS.
The social complexities surrounding the MSM community in Jamaica is often polarizing to the public. There is serious stigma attached to any activities by this community. This is compounded by the fact that HIV remains a complex issue among the most-at-risk populations in Jamaica, including the MSM community. Current statistics on HIV prevalence rates in Jamaica are 1.7% in the general population, or roughly 32,000 persons living with AIDS. Figures are significantly higher in a number of high risk groups: for the MSMs, the prevalence rate is 32%, which in many cases can be directly attributed to the stigma, discrimination and fear of violence or legal sanctions.
In an effort to achieve an AIDS-free generation, breaking down the barriers for all individuals is essential. With support from the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), USAID is allocating significant resources to reach populations most at risk for transmitting or becoming infected with HIV/AIDS. PEPFAR seeks to promote an enabling environment of supportive laws, regulations, policies and social norms in order to facilitate meaningful access to HIV services for these populations at both the facility- and community-level.
USAID, in partnership with Panos, is leading positive efforts to promote tolerance and accountability in response to HIV through constructive use of the media. Panos continues to equip these men with effective tools to expand their voices and concerns so that they can be heard across Jamaica.
Progress will continue to be hampered until we include all people to achieve an AIDS-free generation. Each of us must do our part to promote inclusivity, celebrate diversity, and eliminate stigma and dehumanizing stereotypes.