Bikes and Comics Combat Stigma of HIV and AIDS

hundreds of people on bikesApproximately a million people live with HIV in the US. And in sub-Saharan Africa, 22.8 million people live with HIV-- making it the most affected region of the world.* The HIV and AIDS epidemic has affected the globe and we all play a role in its cultural afflictions and stigma. Since the first case of HIV was publicly reported 30 years ago, and well before that, there has been much heartbreak and devastation caused by HIV and AIDS and by the negative stigma that surrounds it. Over the years, as more information became available, many people have turned to education as well as alternative methods of influence as a tool to help change this negative outlook. A great example of such a display occurred earlier this week in Santa Cruz, in the form of a 500 mile bicycle ride.

Cyclists riding from San Francisco to Los Angeles for the AIDS/LifeCycle10 event coasted into Santa Cruz last Sunday. Fully kitted with crazy costumes, bells, whistles and pom-poms, it became apparent that the event was not only to help raise funds and awareness about the global HIV and AIDS epidemic, but also to change the stigma surrounding the issue. Watching cyclists dressed up to honor those lost and celebrate those who are fighting HIV and AIDS was a powerful message to those cheering for their friends, and onlookers from the street.

African communities also use public efforts to change stigma and raise awareness about HIV. Just one example from the 130 Firelight grantee partners who are helping to fight the ‘shame’ and negative stigma of HIV is Community Youth Mobilization (CYM) in rural Zambia.

At CYM children gather around tables filled with educational comic books and can openly talk and learn about HIV and AIDS. Firelight’s programseveral children in a classroom making peace and number 1 signs director Zanele Sibanda Knight explains that the programs recreational activities help children to find “a space where they can discuss issues of HIV and sexuality with openness, read information, and ask questions without fear of what others will say, or what their parents will say.”  Community based programs like this serve as an example of similar efforts that help create a stigma-free place and a new philosophy for talking about HIV and AIDS. This new attitude is hopefully shared among peers and families, promoting a positive and supportive approach to fighting HIV and AIDS.

Whether it is a long bike ride involving hundreds of people in California, or a small children's center  in Zambia, the efforts going towards a more positive unified vision of the HIV and AIDS stigma are relevant to us all. AIDS/Lifecycle participant and Local San Jose teacher, Maralina Milazzo, who was quoted in the Santa Cruz Sentinel said, "We are all connected, when one of us has HIV, we all have HIV.” This quote was particularly striking for us at Firelight and the Ubuntu concept that we model this blog after. Ubuntu means, "My well being is your well being.” It’s the perfect example to show how the thoughts and feelings surrounding HIV and AIDS are created by us, and help shape what others will think about it as well.

*Statistics collected from AVERT.