The Social Stigma of HIV

HIV positive women cope with stigma everyday

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) For women living with HIV, the disease isn't the only burden they have to cope with. They also have to deal with the stigma of being infected.

A new study examined how HIV-positive women experience and cope with stigma. The study defines stigma as “processes of devaluing, labeling, and stereotyping that are manifested in the loss of status, unfair and unjust treatment, and social isolation of individuals or groups.”

They found that women experienced stigma and discrimination due to a wide range of causes, including HIV status, sexism, and racism. Learning about women's coping strategies can lead to more effective treatment and care for infected women.

"HIV patients have many strategies to deal with stigma."

The study focused on HIV-infected women living in Canada, and was led by Mona Loutfy of the University of Toronto. HIV is increasing among women in the country, with women representing 26 percent of new infections each year. Additionally, HIV infection rates are disproportionately skewed towards minority women. A black Canadian woman is more likely to have HIV than a white woman.

Stigma contributes to the HIV epidemic. If a person experiences stigma around HIV, they're less likely to take steps to get tested or take preventative measures before they're diagnosed with the virus. If they are diagnosed, stigma can create barriers to getting treatment, care, and other types of support.

Study participants came from an urban health clinic that serves women of color in Ontario. To collect data about women's experiences of stigma and their coping strategies, the women were interviewed in focus groups. Their responses were grouped into themes.

The study looked specifically at the intersection of HIV-related stigma, racism, sexism and gender discrimination, homophobia, and transphobia. “Our findings suggest that multiple forms of stigma, such as symbolic, internalized, and enacted, are associated with marginalized identities: HIV-positive serostatus, female gender, sex worker, sexual minority, transgender, and ethnic minorities,” the study authors wrote.

In other words, women who feel like they're being pushed to the outside of society experience various forms of stigma, whether it's from themselves or from others. Women who had internalized stigma had reduced self-esteem, and sometimes even depression. On an individual level, resilience, optimism, and spirituality helped women cope. Joining support groups was an important strategy as well.

HIV-positive women who had another marginalized identity – for example, a minority race or culture – experienced discrimination during treatment, and reduced access to care.

The researchers emphasized that their findings show that HIV-related stigma is a complex system. “It is not only imperative to address stigma and discrimination, but also the discordance between the services offered and the needs of diverse HIV-positive women” they wrote. Their findings can influence treatment and guidelines for doctors, social workers, and many other groups who interact with and support women with HIV.

The study was published in PloS Medicine in November 2011.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
November 19, 2011
Last Updated:
November 27, 2011