HIV: Changing attitudes in Mongolia

Published: 31 July 2008 0:00 CET

Francis Markus, IFRC press officer

People living with HIV are fighting back against discrimination and stigma in Mongolia – with the help of the Red Cross.

The moment that compounded T’s sense of isolation from family and friends was when his favourite uncle started putting T’s teacup aside from all the others, and his aunt started asking why.

“I’m not sure how exactly how everybody found out that I was HIV positive,” says T, a thick-set man in his 30s.

It could have been that the hospital failed to keep his medical records confidential, he says, or it could have been that his relatives suspected something because of his frequent visits to the doctor.

Attitudes

What he does know is that people’s attitudes toward him have changed since his positive HIV test result three years ago, leaving him not only isolated but also without a job and an income.

Stigma and discrimination run deep in Mongolian society, says T, where “we have a saying that damage to one’s reputation is worse than broken bones”.

However, T is determined to put his experience to use in fighting to change Mongolian attitudes to HIV and convince his compatriots that those affected by the virus can play a productive role in society.

Productive

“The images people see on television of people living with HIV are of emaciated people in Africa, so they can’t imagine that people living with the virus can do anything productive,” he says.

So he has visited the Mongolian Red Cross Society headquarters to discuss a proposal by his group, called Positive Life, for cooperation on vocational training for people living with HIV. With support, T is convinced that many of those affected by the virus can involve themselves in work as electricians, tailors, carpenters, or cooks.

There are 36 people officially reported to be living with HIV – out of a population of three million - although one estimate holds that some 475 infections may be going unreported. But with Mongolia’s high population mobility and proximity to China and Russia, that could quickly change.

Controversial

The role that those with the virus play in society can be a controversial subject. Currently, for instance, those wanting to work as chefs in Mongolia have to take an HIV test.

“The decision-makers in our country really ought to rethink this issue,” says Dr Urtnasan, head of the HIV clinic in Ulaanbaatar’s National Centre for Communicable Diseases.

T’s partners at the Mongolian Red Cross have also been working hard to change attitudes themselves.

Awareness

Nyamdorj, a Red Cross HIV programme manager, is already seeing results. The coverage of HIV issues is improving as a result of a two-year programme, supported by the Australian Red Cross, to raise awareness among journalists.

The Mongolian Red Cross has produced two information films for television featuring people living with HIV, who were filmed from behind to preserve their anonymity. T and other Positive Life members have been interviewed a number of times by the media, in an effort to change attitudes in this traditionally conservative nomadic land.

“People used to write about HIV as a terrible disease,” says Nyamdorj, “but slowly we are getting through to the opinion-formers and we are seeing a less negative picture emerge.”


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