HIV stigma and lateral violence within Indigenous communities

As Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island/First Nation people of Australia we still continue to face major challenges and barriers from mainstream society and also within our own communities. This is especially true for Indigenous people living with HIV (PLHIV).

From the first contact of European people on the shores of Australia, Aboriginal people have endured dispossession of their traditional lands and loss of language, genocide, massacres, apartheid, stolen generations and racism to the highest degree imaginable, and still continue to deal with institutionalised racism on a daily basis. And that’s not even the half of it.

As a result of these injustices being committed against the oldest surviving culture in the world, one of the main modern day issues that arise from being oppressed peoples is “lateral violence.”

Lateral violence is  described by the Australian Human Rights Commission as:

  • Behaviour that includes malicious gossip, sabotaging, shaming, blaming, jealousy, shunning, bullying, putting down others, family feuds, backstabbing, attempting to socially isolate others and failure to respect privacy
  • When oppressed people act out rage, anger and frustration
  • When violence and negativity is directed at one’s own people

Lateral violence is sadly quite common within many Indigenous communities in Australia and also around the world.  This is basically a result of Indigenous people having been oppressed by their colonisers.  The long term effect of lateral violence is that the oppressed people often become oppressors themselves.  HIV stigma can be fuelled by the effects of lateral violence, creating many personal challenges for PLHIV, which can include being discriminated against for their HIV status and not having an adequate support network.

We all need to understand that the stigma around HIV is a result of people’s lack of knowledge and awareness about HIV.  Indigenous PLHIV are a minority within a minority and can face a significant amount of discrimination throughout their lives, whether it’s from family, community or wider society. And while there continues to be stigma and lateral violence within our communities, all PLHIV will continue to suffer immensely as a result.

The social and emotional wellbeing of an individual is an integral part of the holistic view of health held by many Indigenous Australian people.  A holistic view of health recognises a connection to land, culture, spirituality, ancestry, family and community as being integral to individual health.  The effects of poor social and emotional wellbeing, as a result of stigma and lateral violence, can greatly affect the health outcomes relating to HIV.  It can become difficult for someone to remain within their community and live peacefully without fear, and ultimately make it incredibly difficult to begin and adhere to a long-term course of HIV treatments, which prevent the virus from replicating in the body.  It is therefore possible that stigma and lateral violence is a reason that treatment uptake is so incredibly low in Indigenous communities in Australia.

It is very important for an Indigenous person living with HIV to feel that their social and emotional wellbeing is in check and to not be treated any differently.  For Indigenous PLHIV to be ostracised and alienated within their own communities at a time they really need to feel supported would be very discouraging.  This can lead to many social and emotional wellbeing problems arising for the individual involved, which makes it more difficult to focus on their HIV treatment needs and long-term health.

For HIV stigma and lateral violence to become a non-existent issue, much needs to be done to correct this negative behaviour and way of thinking. First and foremost people need to be made aware of what lateral violence actually is.  People need to know that it does exist and how it can affect individual people and entire communities.  For HIV stigma to be reduced once and for all, we need to increase awareness about HIV.  HIV is no longer a death sentence and a person living with HIV can live a long and healthy life, thanks to all the treatments we now have.  We need to understand that we all have a part to play in eliminating stigma and lateral violence, and thereby create cultural safety and respectful communities.

There are some great organisations within Queensland who work to increase awareness of HIV in all Queensland communities. 

Other organisations you can also contact in Queensland are:

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