By Thérèse Lynch, Key Correspondent for the Irish Forum for Global Health
In 2013, Trócaire‘s ‘Facing Aids’ campaign highlighted the lived female experience of HIV and AIDS throughout the world. Of the collection of portraits, only two participants did not show their faces on camera – they were both Irish women. The need for anonymity succeeded in keeping their faces in the shadows.
As a nineties kid, I grew up with an awareness of the stigmatisation that people living with HIV were once subject to. However, I believed that I was born into the era of human rights, where our fundamental values are protected by a universal language of empowerment. I naively assumed that with medical advancements as well as the Irish government’s subscription to the Millennium Development Goals, and subsequently the Sustainable Development Goals, that a transformation had occurred in the quality of life those living with HIV in my community.
In many places, people living with HIV are uncomfortable in revealing their status to the world for fear their identity would become subsumed by an ostracizing idea of an illness, and many others feel they cannot share their story. They fear what is termed in the social sciences as a ‘social death’, which occurs when a person’s experience is deemed incompatible with another’s worldview and so their value as a human being is undermined as a result.
The insidious effects of a ‘social death’ are well known to Irish society. It is popular to condemn the failings of those who came before us but we often remain blind to the same processes of stigmatisation in our presence. Consequently, some people living with HIV in Ireland do not allow themselves to ask for help, attend support groups, or simply speak their own truth. Self-isolation and all its negative offshoots are not direct results of a medical diagnosis but a social one that obstructs access to what the heart needs most to heal and strengthen: human connection and solidarity.
Fortunately, there are many across the globe who are striving towards the creation of a more just and inclusive world. These include the inspirational HIV advocate Robbie Lawlor, who describes education as the vaccination for stigma – a remedy that sometimes may not sit well with the religious ethos that still runs through Irish state and society, often most visible within our educational system. Independent resources are needed to overcome issues of access and enable the educational campaigns that are vital to create a revolutionary narrative on HIV and AIDS on this island.
In the 21st century, Irishness is being collectively defined by our relentless efforts to create a society where minorities are empowered to live as freely as the majority.
For our society to move fully beyond a culture of shame and stigmatisation, we need to see into its forgotten corners, where we may find someone in need – someone who had not even crossed our minds before.
Thérèse Lynch is a graduate of Sociology from Trinity College Dublin. She is a current member of the Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation’s Young Peacebuilders program and will soon begin postgraduate studies at the College of Europe. She hopes to work someday in the field of cross-cultural communication and dialogue within post-conflict societies.