The sea of red flags outside my campus center remind me every time that I walk by that it is the Global AIDS Week of Action. Yesterday was World AIDS Day, designed to raise awareness about the AIDS epidemic. It’s something that, as an American college student, doesn’t touch my life every day – but the reality of the stigma against AIDS was brought home to me in a new way yesterday when I read this article, about Russia’s HIV-positive beauty queen, Svetlana Izambayeva, who is being prevented from adopting her ten-year-old brother because of discrimination against people with HIV.
Izambayeva was crowned “Miss Positive” in 2005, in Russia’s first beauty pageant for women with HIV. Despite my feelings about beauty pageants – which are decidedly mixed – I recognize that Izambayeva is part of a growing movement to address rampant discrimination against people with HIV in Russia. But she is now embroiled in a struggle with the Russian government that illustrates perfectly how deep the stigma against HIV can run.
Izambayeva has been seeking custody of Sasha, her 10-year-old brother, since their mother died in February. Sasha has been living in an orphanage ever since. As a close living relative, Izambayeva seems to be a logical choice for Sasha’s legal guardian, particularly since she is already raising two children with her husband. But ever since she contracted HIV after a “short-lived summer romance” in 2003, Izambayeva has been treated like a second-class citizen. The Russian government sent her an official refusal to her request to adopt her brother, citing her “incurable” disease. They continued: “Infectious diseases are cause for denying child custody until cured,” the letter from social services officials reads. “Your illness qualifies as infectious.”
Discrimination against people who are HIV -positive is apparently the norm in Russia, where people frequently hide the disease from their friends and employers, despite the fact that Russia has the fastest growing HIV-positive population in the world, with around 140-150 new cases of infection daily and one percent of the population living with HIV. Izambayeva has spoken out about the stigma against HIV, saying, “Before I thought I had to hide myself, isolate myself from society. But one can live even with the virus, and live normally!”
The stigma seems mostly to stem from ignorance of how the disease is contracted, and how it can be spread.
“Eighty percent of the people you might have been sitting and drinking tea with before, will turn away from you once you admit having the virus,” said Vladimir Mayanovsky, head of the NGO, All-Russian Union of People Living with HIV. “Many people still think the infection can be had through dirty dishes or mosquito bites, so of course people are afraid to live with an HIV-positive person.” It is common, apparently, for people in small Russian communities to be socially ostracized and even pressured to leave if their diagnosis becomes public.
The case of Izambayeva and her brother is particularly heartbreaking, since her brother has been living alone in an orphanage for close to a year. “They don’t take care of him there, his hair is always dirty,” she said. “It’s very hard for him. He’s scared.”
This case makes plain the extent to which stigma against HIV is real, and widespread. And although the discrimination may be less blatant here in the United States, it’s still something we need to be aware of. There are simple steps we can take in our own lives – and you can start by signing this petition to address the growing U.S. epidemic. Our country needs to take a leadership role on this issue – and perhaps we can influence attitudes abroad.
Photo courtesy of jonrawlinson's Flickr photostream.