Paulina Muchina gives speech for HIV Stigma Conference. (Photo by Victoria Jones)

Howard University’s fifth Annual HIV Stigma Conference on Nov. 21 brought together hundreds of health care providers, public health officials, activists, students, faith leaders, people affected by HIV and experts from across the globe to discuss strategies to eliminate the stigma and mental health complications associated with the disease.

“We must deal with stigma.  I see how much money goes into treatment, I believe in treatment you know.  I believe in these wonderful programs that are being funded all over the world, but I see very little efforts being put at the community level and dealing with forces that are exacerbating stigma, such as religious and cultural traditions,” said Paulina Muchina, founder of Future African Leaders Project, during her speech.

The conference also showcased the work of human rights activists and artists who are leading the fight against stigma across the globe. Community leaders that were at the event included Maria Mejia, Latino HIV positive writer and activist; Gee Session Smalls, co-founder of The Gentlemen’s Foundation ; Mary Bowman, Washington HIV/AIDS activist, musician and poet who has been HIV positive since birth; and Justin Terry Smith, HIV positive activist and blogger.

“I strongly believe that we have the power to change,” stated Muchina.  “We continue to challenge the governments of the world to continue implementing, not just making the laws and the rules.”

A Human Rights and Health panel in Howard University’s College of Medicine Red Room discussed sexual and reproductive health and the exclusion of women in the national HIV/AIDS strategy along with several other topics. The panel consisted of Benjamin Mason Meier, assistant professor of global health policy, Salaam Semaan, deputy associate director for Science, Dazon Dixon Diallo, founder and president of SisterLove, Inc. and Muchina.

“Women still by a margin, in terms of the context of sexual and reproductive health issues, were not explicitly identified, laid out, nor given aims and metrics in the national HIV/ AIDS Strategy,”   said Diallo. “Some issues are broken out by population once you look at the particular aims of the strategy and none of those speak specifically to the cases of women.”

Another panel, entitled Community Programs and Interventions to Address Stigma, addressed issues such as community programs and interventions to address stigma, the importance of addressing stigma when offering HIV care and treatment services, and building resilience and challenging stigma.  Panelists included Manisha Maskay, principal investigator, Maurice Evans, network navigator, Carla Zelaya, assistant scientist, and Noerine Kaleeba, programme development adviser for the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).

The event also addressed topics such as the ethics of HIV disclosure, sex, using peer community health worker model to overcome stigma, and HIV stigma in the faith community.