File photo: Chris Collingridge

Pretoria - South Africa’s first national HIV stigma survey has found that 7 percent of HIV-positive women surveyed reported being sterilised against their will.

About 40 percent said contraception use had been a pre-requisite to accessing antiretroviral (ARV) treatment, contrary to national policy.

Launched this week at the SA Aids Conference in Durban, South Africa’s HIV stigma index surveyed about 10 500 people living with HIV across the country in what is the world’s largest survey of its kind.

Commissioned by the SA National Aids Council (Sanac), the report also showed that 14 percent of women living with the virus had not received ARVs during pregnancy despite national policies.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, the study found that while HIV-related stigma was much lower in South Africa than in other African countries, women and young people continued to bear the brunt.

“We heard from people living with HIV who had been forced to forego marriage due to stigma, some who had been denied work promotion, or had been coerced into undergoing sterilisation,” said the research’s project manager Sindisiwe Blose.

“Behind the figures, lies a depth of suffering that struggles to be addressed.”

The report comes almost 20 years after Durban activist Gugu Dlamini was beaten to death by members of her community for disclosing her HIV-positive status.

She came to embody the price of HIV stigma for many.

Her daughter, Mandisa, was 12 when her mother died.

She toured the Gugu Dlamini Park with Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa before the stigma index’s launch.

She spoke candidly about her at the Aids conference.

“The community started beating her with anything they could find,” said Mandisa, who was largely left to fend for herself until she was taken in by a stranger.

“When they were done, they pushed her down a cliff and told the neighbour, who was also HIV-infected and a friend of my mother’s, ‘Go and tell them to come and fetch their dog, we are done with it.’”

The index showed that one-third of people living with HIV had been stigmatised by their communities and an equal proportion also reported being discriminated against due to a tuberculosis diagnosis.

Almost half of all people living with HIV surveyed reported having feelings of shame and guilt – or internal stigma – and about 10 percent had contemplated suicide.

These feelings led 14 percent to forgo sex or marriage, and a third of people surveyed to refrain from having more children.

At the index’s launch, Deputy Minister of Health Dr Joe Phaala said the government intended to roll out a programme to link HIV-positive people with local support groups, adherence counselling and sexual reproductive health services.

Piloted in countries like Uganda as well as South Africa’s OR Tambo District in the Eastern Cape, the Positive Health, Dignity and Prevention programme aims to improve the health of people living with HIV and their involvement in HIV prevention campaigns.

The programme’s planned roll-out follows the recent launch of a partnership between Sanac, Legal Aids South Africa and public interest law organisation Section27 to provide legal assistance to people who believe they have been discriminated against due to their HIV status.

People seeking to access the service can call the toll-free Legal Aid helpline at 0800 110 110.

Health-e Service