This presentation given by Elizabeth Mlambo at the Under the Baobab African Diaspora Networking Zone at the International AIDS Conference, AIDS 2014, discusses the value of a peer support group for African Australians living with HIV.
Overcoming HIV stigma and social isolation in the African diaspora: Antiretroviral therapy alone is not enough
Overcoming HIV stigma and social isolation
in the African diaspora: Antiretroviral
therapy alone is not enough
E.S. Mlambo, B. Leece, M. Orchard, A. Stone.
Sexual Health Promotion Team (HARP Team ), Lemongrove Campus,
Gascoigne St, Penrith, 2751.Tel 02 4734 3877 | Fax 02 4734 3865
Abstract no. A-641-0408-06740
The western suburbs of Sydney are home to a culturally diverse population. There has been an
increase of migrants from countries with a high prevalence of HIV/AIDS. The mobility patterns have
influenced HIV statistics in western Sydney.
There are many challenges faced by people living with HIV. These include the trauma of living as a
refugee, the complexity of the migration process and the stigma associated with the diagnosis.
The most visible HIV prevention strategies in Australia continue to focus on men who have sex with
men. However, there have been increasing numbers of cases of heterosexual transmission over
the last decade, particularly in western Sydney.
Of the cases of heterosexual transmission in Australia the majority are from high prevalence
58% in 2003 – 2007
75% in 2008 - 2012
African-born people are overrepresented among HIV diagnosis in Australia.2
Issues faced by HIV positive Africans
HIV has been perceived as a death sentence by many African communities making it very
difficult to deal with an HIV positive result.
The stigma of being positive may lead to lack of community support and isolation.
Attitudes towards condom use (a cultural battle).
Misconceptions about HIV transmission are still a barrier (Biomedical perception versus-
magical–spiritual views ).
There is a false perception of who is at risk of HIV, the notion of “loose people” is commonly
Issues faced by HIV positive Africans c’nt
Failure to recognise the difference between HIV and AIDS.
Transitional structural settlement issues and cultural differences.
Denial of permanent residence due to HIV status.
Mental health issues .
Establishment of the support group
In 2009,The HARP Team, Heterosexual HIV Service(Pozhet) and ACON set up a support group for
African HIV-positive women to help them overcome HIV stigma and isolation.
The Group aimed to support the needs of newly diagnosed women cope with their diagnosis and
facilitate opportunities for sharing experiences of living with HIV. As well as offer peer support.
The group developed their own slogan, ‘Together we stand, divided we fall’, which has been be used
throughout the life span of the group.
Clients are mostly referred by sexual health clinics. Potential clients are interviewed before they can
attend the Group. It is extremely important to protect the confidentiality of the Group as many
participants are fearful of their community, and in some cases their family, finding out about their HIV
Achievements of the group
The Group has managed to break social isolation and strong social networks have been formed,
outside the group. Some of the Group members have come out openly about their status, taking up
the role of educating the community that HIV is no longer a “ death sentence”.
– The group has met monthly since 2009
– It has grown from 5 to 50 women
– It has facilitated training opportunities for women to be come public advocates for living with
– Increased the voice of HIV positive African women in policies, resources and programs
– Women from all over Australia have accessed the group
– Drug compliance within the group is now 100%
– In 2012, the group expanded to include men
‘This is the greatest thing that has ever happened, meeting someone with a similar condition, same
background, talking about HIV.’ 1
Achievements of the group
‘I was diagnosed in a refugees camp and automatically I was isolated; it was only the nurse who I
could visit for medication. One day she gave me a hug and to me it was more than life.’ 1
’It was so good to be able to share my story, to be able to express my hopes and fears, and not to
be judged.’ 1
‘I had lost hope, I thought I was dying anyway, and I said what's the point of taking the tablets the
doctors gave me , I never took any until the day I joined the group. No man is an island..stay
connected and you will live’. 1
‘I was very angry about my status, very angry. I live alone and I have not seen my parents for
more than 10 years, but I feel much better now that I have others around me .’ 1
Over the last five years the group has grown , changed and expanded in scope. Its make up, organisation
and structure have been altered by its members to reflect their needs and the changing face of HIV in
The most significant achievement of this project has been the participants increased ability to overcome HIV
stigma and social isolation. In addition to this, the engagement of participants in the group has led to a
phenomenal uptake of antiretroviral therapy.
1. Quotes from the group1
2.The Kirby Institute. HIV, viral hepatitis and sexually transmissible infections in Australia. Annual Surveillance Report 2013.The Kirby Institute, the University
of New South Wales, Sydney, NSW. 2013. Available at: http://www.kirby.unsw.edu.au. 2