What is Stigma?

Stigma is a degrading and debasing attitude of the society that discredits a person or a group because of an attribute (such as an illness, deformity, color, nationality, religion etc). The resulting coping behavior of affected person results in internalized stigma. This perceived or internalized stigma by the discredited person is equally destructive whether or not actual discrimination occurs. Stigma destroys a person’s dignity; marginalizes affected individuals; violates basic human rights; markedly diminishes the chances of a stigmatized person of achieving full potential; and seriously hampers pursuit of happiness and contentment.

When stigma is associated with a medical condition or disability it prevents individuals from seeking evaluation and treatment, disclosing the diagnosis to the people most likely to provide support and in following treatment guidelines. While there are many illnesses such as leprosy that have been severely stigmatized in the past, it is generally agreed that HIV/AIDS is the most stigmatized medical condition in the history of mankind. While society elevates the status of those receiving treatment for some conditions such as cancer or serious injuries as heroes, those who have acquired HIV are subjected to layers upon layers of stigma with assumptions that these individuals are deserving of punishment for their “assumed behavior that led them to get HIV” and they are often shunned.

Stigma prevents individuals from getting tested for HIV, seeking medical care, disclosing diagnosis and in adhering to treatment and follow up. Fear of social abandonment and losing intimate partners prevents many with HIV from sharing the diagnosis with their loved ones and sexual partners. Stigma has become a major reason why HIV epidemic continues and millions of people are getting infected and dying with HIV every year.

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