|© UNICEF Tanzania/2009|
|During a group exercise in the Young Journalists workshop in Unguja, Zanzibar, the participants discuss different scenarios of HIV stigmatization.|
By Jacqueline Namfua
ZANZIBAR CITY, Tanzania, 05 January 2010 - During a seven-day Young Journalists Workshop at the Zanzibar International Film Festival (ZIFF) Children’s Panorama, 24 children who are infected or affected by HIV/AIDS had an opportunity to share their experiences.
“Everyone sits far away from you and the nurses give you this horrible look and attitude just because you are HIV-positive,” said Haulat, a 17-year-old orphan and workshop participant from Zanzibar.
The workshop participants belong to the Zanzibar Association of People Living with HIV/ AIDS (ZAPHA+) support groups scattered across Unguja and Pemba islands. These groups, supported by UNICEF, provide counselling, support and education for children facing challenges while living with HIV.
At the workshop, the children wrote their own articles and features for a newsletter, which was later distributed during the 10-day festival. The newsletters were also sent out to schools in Unguja and Pemba to raise awareness about HIV and reduce stigma and discrimination against children infected and/or affected by HIV and AIDS.
Widespread stigma and discrimination
Relative to other parts of the region, Zanzibar’s HIV prevalence is not high – but the levels of stigma are.
Stigma and discrimination are still widespread among Tanzanian adults, according to the 2007-2008 Tanzania HIV and Malaria Indicator Survey. Some 43 per cent of women and 35 per cent of men surveyed reported that they would not buy fresh vegetables from a shopkeeper who has HIV, and 51 per cent of women and 41 per cent of men would keep it a secret that a family member is infected with the HIV virus.
Because of the high level of stigma in Zanzibar, people are reluctant to get tested and learn their status. This in turn facilitates the spread of the disease. Though treatment for HIV and AIDS is readily available on the island, many avoid testing and diagnosis for fear of how community and family members might respond.
Educating her peers
Stigma towards young people is often exacerbated because of their vulnerability, and can lead to exclusion, isolation, dropping out of school and being refused treatment at health facilities. UNICEF works with the Zanzibar government, civil society organizations like ZAPHA+ and other development partners to combat stigma and its impact, especially on children and young people.
Mgeni, who also participated in the workshop, only discovered she was HIV-positive at the age of 14, after a lifetime of infection. "When I found out I was HIV-positive, I cried and cried for three days straight. My spirits were so low and I could not even eat for an entire week," she said.
Mgeni’s mother, who died when Mgeni was a young child, had suffered from both breast cancer and AIDS. As a result, her classmates distanced themselves from Mgeni, claiming she was sick.
Through events such as the Young Journalists Workshop and the regular meetings of the ZAPHA+ children’s support groups – led by trained youth facilitators – children are able to analyze the causes and consequences of stigma, get empowered with skills to cope with stigma, and build strategies to change attitudes, increase awareness and reduce stigma, said Emmi Mutale, UNICEF Programme Officer for HIV and AIDS in Zanzibar.
Shortly after finding out her HIV status, Mgeni joined ZAPHA+ and learned more about HIV and AIDS.
“After getting informed, I educated my classmates about HIV and AIDS and I explained to them how I got the virus,” she explains proudly. “Now they understand the disease better and they accept me for me.”