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Takhmina Khaidarova: Stigma and Discrimination Against People Living With HIV in Tajikistan Must End

December 10, 2023 will mark the 75th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Declaration was written and adopted by representatives of all regions of the world, its main postulate is that human rights are universal, indivisible and are the basis of peace and development.

Asia-Plus has prepared a series of articles dedicated to this significant date.

In Tajikistan, the first case of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) was officially identified for the first time 32 years ago.

What changes have occurred since then and how people with HIV infection live in Tajikistan, how to change the negative attitude of society towards them, says Takhmina Khaidarova, head of the Network of Women Living with HIV in Tajikistan.

  • Takhmina, tell us what is the current situation with HIV infection in Tajikistan? What’s the latest data?
  • The situation with HIV infection in Tajikistan still remains serious. According to the latest data, at the end of March 2023, 15,333 cases of HIV were registered – 9,764 men and 5,569 women. However, experts believe that the actual number of people living with HIV may be even higher, since not everyone is tested for HIV.
  • Among which age groups is infection detected more often? What is this connected with?
  • Most often, HIV infection is detected among young people aged 25 to 49 years. This is due to several factors.

Thus, young people are more likely to misuse contraception, have unwanted sexual contact, and use drugs. In addition, they may not be well informed about HIV transmission methods and precautions.

Medicine has made great strides forward

  • How is the country addressing the issue of HIV prevention and treatment?
  • The problem, as I already said, is very serious and for this reason in Tajikistan, close attention is paid to the issue of HIV prevention and treatment.

For example, in 2016, Tajikistan ratified the “Political Declaration on HIV and AIDS: Accelerating the fight against HIV and ending the AIDS epidemic by 2030.”

In 2017, the Health Code was adopted, which, in Chapter 24, focuses on the treatment and prevention of HIV and prohibits discrimination against people living with HIV, or PLHIV for short, in all areas of life.

In 2020, the government approved the National Program to Combat the HIV Epidemic and Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) for 2021-2025, as well as the overall budget and Action Plan.

These documents define ways to solve the HIV problem, including the rights of PLHIV to receive free qualified and specialized medical care in public health care institutions, recognizes the principle of voluntary HIV treatment, as well as confidential and voluntary medical examinations for HIV.

These measures aim to reduce the spread of HIV infection, provide early diagnosis and effective treatment, eradicate stigma and discrimination, and improve the quality of life of people living with HIV.

  • What about the provision of antiretroviral therapy drugs to patients? Are there enough of them?
  • The situation with providing patients with antiretroviral therapy (ART) drugs, thanks to the efforts of the government and the Global Fund, is satisfactory.

I would like to note that since the emergence of this virus, medicine in the world has made a big step forward in its treatment. For example, now people living with HIV only need to take one tablet a day to eliminate the negative consequences of the infection.

Patients in need of treatment can go to AIDS centers at their place of residence and receive medications free of charge.

If a person is suspected of having HIV infection, it is recommended that they contact local health care providers or HIV/AIDS organizations to obtain professional HIV counseling and testing.

“People living with HIV continue to be discriminated against”

  • What assistance does your organization provide to the country’s authorities in solving the HIV problem?
  • The Government of Tajikistan actively cooperates with international and public organizations to prevent the spread of HIV infection and provide access to testing, treatment and support for people living with HIV.

Our organization provides assistance to the country’s authorities in solving these problems, as well as reducing stigma and discrimination against PLHIV.

We are engaged in the prevention of HIV infection, conduct information campaigns, promote the interests of women and girls living with HIV with the aim of the participation of women and girls in decision-making.

We also provide training to communities, parents of children living with HIV, medical personnel, and contribute to the development of national strategies to combat HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases.

Our organization works at the local and national levels, collaborating with government agencies and other public organizations to achieve the common goal of preventing the spread of HIV infection and providing effective treatment and support for people living with HIV.

  • Why did you personally decide to head an organization dealing with the problems of women living with HIV?
  • The fact is that in 2010, the HIV problem affected my family, and at that time I did not see an organization in the country dedicated to protecting the rights of women living with HIV, and there was a widespread opinion in society that only women of easy virtue and people who inject drugs can become infected with HIV.

In practice, when I started working in this area, I saw women who had become victims of HIV infection. These were wives of migrant workers, wives of people who inject drugs and women who were infected in medical institutions.

Despite the progressive provisions existing in Tajik legislation, practice has shown that, unfortunately, people living with HIV are still subject to discrimination in all spheres of life.

The reasons for such discrimination are different: false ideas and knowledge about the disease, low qualifications of employees of relevant departments, low legal awareness of the population as a whole, gender stereotypes, contradictions in legislation, and others.

In order to change opinions in society, I began to actively work in this direction. My motto became the words: “There is no need to divide people by status and social status! Stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV must end! People living with HIV are equal citizens like everyone else!”

“Legislation must protect the rights of people living with HIV”

  • According to earlier surveys, many citizens do not want to come to HIV detection centers for fear of being prosecuted, as well as stigma in society. What do you think about it?
  • I absolutely agree with you that fear of prosecution under Article 125 and stigma in society are serious obstacles to people seeking help and testing for HIV.

Indeed, in such cases, certain measures are necessary to overcome these barriers.

The state must ensure that information about HIV infection and test results are confidential. To do this, we need to strengthen legislation and ethical standards that will ensure the protection of patient privacy.

There is also a need to conduct information campaigns about HIV/AIDS to address lack of knowledge and prejudice. The more people know about HIV, the less fear and stigma there will be.

Legislation must protect the rights of people living with HIV from discrimination and persecution in society.

  • What can and should be done to stop the spread of HIV in Tajikistan? How do you see ways to solve the problem? As much as possible?
  • Stopping the spread of HIV in Tajikistan is a complex task that requires an integrated approach and great efforts from the government, the public and the international community. Here are some ways to solve this problem:

First, it is necessary to guarantee access to HIV treatment, including antiretroviral drugs, testing and counseling. It is also important to train medical personnel to provide quality care to patients with HIV/AIDS without discrimination.

There is also a need for awareness campaigns to raise awareness about the virus, how to protect yourself and how to prevent transmission.

It is important to develop policies and programs to reduce stigma and discrimination associated with HIV/AIDS. This may include educational activities aimed at protecting the rights of people living with HIV/AIDS.

Another important task is the elimination of discriminatory legal documents in order to create a favorable, non-discriminatory environment for people living with HIV, especially in relation to women.

I would like to note that in our country, advocacy for changes in legislation continues and serious steps have already been taken. Two large Forums were held with the participation of representatives of the public sector, international courts and civil society. I also took part in these events and gave a presentation about the problems and barriers faced by women living with HIV.

A working group, which included civil society and representatives of the Supreme Court, developed a plan for the draft Criminal Code, which included an amendment to Article 125, which explains in which cases a person puts another person at risk and in which he does not. I understand that the country’s policy is such that it is impossible to completely remove this article from the Criminal Code, and that we have all already taken a big step.

It is important to remember that not disclosing your HIV status can pose a real threat to public health and harm others. Therefore, it is necessary to strive for a balance between protecting the rights and privacy of patients and ensuring the safety of society as a whole.

The implementation of all these measures will require significant effort and resources. However, with proper planning and an adequate approach, I think stopping the spread of HIV in Tajikistan is possible.

It is important that all stakeholders work together to achieve this common goal and ensure the health and well-being of the country’s population.

Source: Asia Plus TJ