Stigma and discrimination: this was the theme for World AIDS Day this year. What do these words mean' People living with HIV/AIDS in India are the victims of ignorance, prejudice and fear, the expressions of which range from brutal physical violence to the most refined and “liberal” of evasions. This includes not only those who are HIV+ or have AIDS, but also their family and carers. The ignorance, though nurtured by illiteracy, cuts across all levels of society, rural and urban. Most dangerously, medical and paramedical personnel at hospitals, clinics and investigation centres are no exceptions to this, just for the lack of proper information about HIV/AIDS. So a massive operation of simply informing people about the virus and the syndrome needs to be kept up and in some cases, initiated. So much for the stigma. The discrimination which HIV/AIDS meets with is a specific combination of some of the most basic injustices in modern Indian society — the disempowerment of women at all levels of society, unthinking notions of masculinity, indifference to the rights of children, virulent homophobia and a duplicitous criminalizing of sex-work. India, particularly its respectable city-dwellers, has created its own image of HIV/AIDS, which allows it to maintain this unexamined vision of human sexuality, without ever confronting its lies, secrets and silences, its myths and blind spots.
This vision takes comfort in seeing women, particularly wives, as the “victims” of male promiscuity — a promiscuity that is invariably imagined in heterosexual terms. It creates the familiar realm of monogamous marriage, outside which lurk truck-drivers, sex-workers, migrant labourers, white back-packers and those shadowy men who have sex with men. It is unfortunate that most governmental and non-governmental HIV/AIDS workers and policy-makers in India come from this respectable class and bring to their work its attitudes and assumptions. India’s hope must lie in its young people and in those who actually live with HIV/AIDS; both communities can be educated, empowered and organized to bring about real and radical social change. In this, the question of sex education will have to be thought through in detail — particularly the content of such education and the training of the educators. Focussing on stigma and discrimination underscores the urgent need for a human-rights-based approach to HIV/AIDS. Injustice and inequality — sexual, social and economic — reinforce vulnerability, which, in turn, breeds unsafe behaviour. HIV/AIDS demands very much more than forcing Ms Sushma Swaraj out of her sqeamishness about condoms.