On 21 February, Youth Stop AIDS hosted the Edinburgh leg of their marathon 2018 speaker tour, which stretches from Kent to Glasgow over three weeks.
The event is primarily one of storytelling, with three young people living with HIV recounting their experiences – from diagnosis, to crisis, to reclaiming their lives. Speakers presented themselves boldly and candidly through telling stories – a powerful way of spreading a message and destroying stigma brought about by ignorance.
Kennedy, a young man from Kenya, spoke powerfully of his experiences at home – how he was thrown out and abused for being gay, and spent time as a sex worker, during which he contracted HIV. Misinformation in his home town meant that he was unable to protect himself, but after being diagnosed he went on to make every effort to make sure his peers were not placed in the same vulnerable position. He ensured condoms were available, and that his peers knew the facts about HIV.
Michael, from Glasgow, emphasised the dangers of ignorance, but also highlighted the power of information. Growing up in a time during which incredible fear and stigma was attached to HIV, he viewed his diagnosis as a death sentence. He spoke of the terror that lies and exaggerations on the internet instilled in him, and how he was minutes away from suicide before he stumbled across a key word: ‘undetectable’. Being undetectable means that, although you still have HIV, you can no longer pass it on to anyone, even through engaging in unprotected sex. Developments in medication for HIV means that this is now a possibility for many, but large amounts of people still remain unaware of it.
A final speaker spoke of her experiences of living with HIV since being a child. Here, the damage that stigma can cause to the mental health of those living with HIV was particularly evident. As a child, she was able to live a normal life while taking her medication. It was when she grew into an adult world filled with fear and shame about HIV that her mental health started to deteriorate, eventually leading to the decline of her physical health, as she became reluctant to take essential medication.
The presentation conveyed the idea that although HIV and AIDS must be tackled through funding medical developments, half of the fight is in challenging the stigma surrounding it, so that more people will get tested regularly, and living with HIV doesn’t have to be synonymous with living with shame.
Apart from sharing stories, the event was also a stance to a call to arms. The UK government is currently cutting funding to tackling HIV and AIDS, and Youth Stop AIDS are challenging this. Their ultimate goal is to end AIDS and AIDS related stigma by 2030, and to do this they are asking the government to double their funding to the RNCF, a fund which supports young, often marginalised people living with HIV, to £10m.
Though young people are disproportionately affected by HIV, Youth Stop AIDS also believes it is young people who have the power to find a solution. Youth Stop AIDS are currently running the ‘It Ain’t Over!’ campaign, lobbying the government to take action through Dfid to plug the funding gap, and prioritise young people.
If you want to join the campaign, you can tell your MP that ‘It Ain’t Over’ by emailing your MP here: http://youthstopaids.org/itaintover/
Image: Rachel Lily, Restless Development