The Media’s Role in Malawi’s Struggle to End HIV Stigma

While the communities in Malawi in particular and the country at large are hoping for the media to help end any form of stigma and discrimination the media itself needs a lot of training and courage to confront the problem.

By Raphael Mweninguwe

To volunteer for an HIV test in the early 80s and 90s in Malawi, was something that almost nobody dared to do. The reason was because people who were found to be HIV positive tended to be stigmatised by the very same communities that were supposed to offer them help and comfort.

The fear was mainly due to the fact that they could be labelled “prostitute” or “hule” in the local Chichewa vernacular because it’s a word that has a wrong connotation in as far as sex issues are concerned and is a strong contributing factor to stigma.

The media, too, could not just report about someone being tested positive for HIV as journalists openly refused to take an HIV test for fear of stigma. To be labelled a “hule” is something that the media was not ready for.

But over the years Malawians began to realise that HIV and AIDS is here to stay and a number of programmes have been implemented aimed at ending stigma as well as reducing the infection rate amongst the population and encouraging people to go for treatment.

Despite these efforts that have been made for a number of years the country has remained one of the highest with HIV cases in the world. Some health and human rights experts blame it all on stigma arguing that if those living with the HIV have not been stigmatised within the communities the rate of infections would have gone down long time ago because people would have known their status.

A UK based international HIV and AIDS charity, AVERT, estimates that 1.1 million people are living with HIV in Malawi and 8.9% of those are adults aged between 15 and 49 years of age. The new infections rates are at 33,000 annually.

The communities’ labelling of people living with HIV as “prostitute” instead of sex workers has exacerbated the situation. The Malawian LGBTQ community which is also facing HIV and AIDS crisis is also being stigmatized on two fronts: being gay or lesbians or transgender and also being persons living with HIV.

If you are gay in Malawi you are likely to be arrested and face years in jail. And if you are a sex worker you could also be disowned by your own family on the ground that what you are into is “against culture.”

Stigma and discrimination is also faced by people living with other disability conditions such as albinism.

And all this stigma is partly blamed on the media for not doing enough or wrongly reporting on the issues that affect minority groups.

The Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation Executive Director, Michael Kaiyatsa, said in an email response to a questionnaire that, “A lot of the stigma has to do with people’s beliefs, myths and misconceptions.  Despite awareness campaigns, there are still misconceptions about how HIV is transmitted and what it means to live with HIV today. The lack of information and awareness combined with outdated beliefs lead people to stigmatise people living with HIV.”

Kaiyatsa who is fighting for the rights of LGBTQ, sex workers, albinism, and people living with HIV said their rights are not respected despite the Constitution guaranteeing them the rights and freedoms.

“We still have criminal laws in place. Cultural and religious beliefs, particularly the idea that homosexuality and prostitution are sinful or immoral behaviours, are among the most prominent,” he told Media Diversity Institute.

He observed that most African countries have maintained colonial-era laws, Malawi included, which criminalise homosexuality. He said even when not enforced, such laws fuel the stigma attached to homosexuality and provide a justification for homophobic behaviour.

“Similarly, when sex work is deemed to be an unlawful activity, sex workers are treated as criminals and their criminal status is used as justification for violations of their rights,” he said.

He also blamed the media as a contributing agent to the problem.

“The only time you get to hear or read about these groups [in the media] is when something bad has happened to them like when someone has been arrested, beaten up or killed, and our media has a habit of sensationalising stories related to these [minority] groups,” he said.

Harriet Kachimanga, Public Relations Officer with the Malawi Council for the Handicapped (Macoha) said most of those in the media have a big challenge in reporting about issues of stigma and discrimination be it about HIV and AIDS or other disabilities.

“There is also a challenge in the fact that some [journalists] do not have adequate knowledge on how to report disability issues especially when it comes to matters concerning appropriate disability terminology. This is particularly in the cases of how persons with disabilities are referred to and how their assistive devices are referred to,” she said.

She blames the media for deliberately twisting the information to report wrongly on issues do with minority groups to suite the media’s way of thinking.

Overstone Kondowe, one of the persons living with albinism, has just been elected into Parliament winning the seat in a contested by-election last month. He said in an interview that he would fight against any law that discriminate or pave way for stigma against minority groups especially those living with albinism.

Kondowe is the first Malawian living with albinism to be elected into Parliament and his ascension to Parliament is giving hopes to other minority groups.

Although issues of stigma and discrimination against persons living with HIV and disabilities are getting the attention of the politicians including the law makers, the LGBRQ and sex workers are rarely getting the attention they need.

President Lazarus Chakwera, a former Pastor and President of the Assemblies of God in Malawi, has always talked about respecting the rights of people living with albinism and other disabilities but fail short of discussing issues of gays and lesbians.

He recently called on the nation to stop stigma and discrimination against people with albinism and said his administration will do everything possible to protect them.

While the communities in particular and the country at large are hoping for the media to help end any form of stigma and discrimination the media itself needs a lot of training and courage to confront the problem.

And for media to do so it must accept that tackling stigma is everybody’s responsibility.

Photo Credits: kim7 / Shutterstock