Addressing stigma and discrimination was underlined as critical to progress on HIV by UNAIDS Goodwill Ambassador Crown Princess Mette Marit, during a site visit to a shelter for children living with and affected by HIV in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Visiting the shelter was part of her programme at the Women Deliver Congress (28-30 May 2013), where she spoke and participated in a number of key sessions and panels. The Crown Princess stressed that addressing HIV related stigma is crucial in ensuring key populations have access to essential HIV services as well as support from society.
"Whether in Norway or Africa, or Asia, there is still so much stigma around HIV. Combating stigma is one of the more important aspects to ensure people can protect themselves and get tested,” said the Crown Princess at the WAKE shelter. The shelter is run by the Malaysian Women and Health Association (Perubuhan Wanita Dan Kesihatan) and was set up in 2001 to support children who have been abandoned due to their or their parents’ HIV status.
“One of the biggest challenges to progress on HIV is getting information to people who need it most, who are often on the margins of society and who are discriminated against. To combat stigma we need to talk more about issues that are sometimes sensitive like sexuality and sex work for example” she added.
Arriving at the home, the Crown Princess was met by children, young people and women living with HIV staying in or involved with the shelter. Children shared their experiences with the Crown Princess, guiding her around the brightly coloured shelter and pointing out artwork and decorations they had created as part of their daily activities. Women living with HIV showcased their crafts which are made available for sale at fairs and other events as part of the WAKE income generation initiative.
Children at the shelter are provided with a home, nutritious meals and support from staff and counsellors who are on hand 24 hours a day to address children's emotional and behavioural needs. Access to comprehensive health care, including psychological support and antiretroviral treatment is provided, as is access to education, school books and uniforms and opportunities for after school activities to ensure play time is integrated in the children's daily lives.
Commending the comprehensive approach adopted at the shelter for children and young people, Crown Princess Mette-Marit stressed that support and peer education is highly important for people most at risk, and that involvement of key communities in taking responses forward is critical.
The Crown Princess was joined by the Chair of the Malaysian Aids Council, Professor Dr Adeeba Kamarulzaman, and the Deputy Minister for Women, Family and Community Development, Datuk Azizah Mohd Dun. The Deputy Minister shared information with the Crown Princess about Malaysia’s AIDS response, including the significant progress made in delivering services to prevent new HIV infections among children. The coverage of such services was reported to be as high as 95% in 2012.
Dr Adeeba heralded the progress made, underlining that continued efforts are needed to ensure all people in need can access HIV services. "Our aim is to eliminate new HIV infections among children - so no babies are being born with HIV. We have the science and medicines to do that but, what is stopping us is stigma, discrimination and policies - especially against marginalized communities,” she said.
Young people: the hope; the leaders of today
Concluding her visit to the shelter, The Norwegian Crown Princessthanked the children and young people who had come to meet her, underlining that their commitment and dedication to advancing social and development agendas were what drive her continued advocacy on HIV. “What gives me hope is the young people I meet,” she said. “Their passion and commitment, their fight, drives me.”
During her three-day programme in Kuala Lumpur, the Crown Princess met and discussed with a wide range of young people living with and affected by HIV and/or working on HIV and other health and development issues. At a session organized by UNAIDS to look at the sexual and reproductive health and rights of women living with HIV within the context of the Global Plan, the Crown Princess spontaneously invited three young delegates to take the stage and give their unique feedback to the distinguished panel about the issues most important to them for continuing the HIV response.
“I believe that if we are to turn the tide on the epidemic, we must focus our efforts and energies on young people,” said the Crown Princess. “Young people are often the most vulnerable to HIV, but they are also the best agents of change. They are not leaders of tomorrow - they are leaders of today,” she added.