Homophobia and resulting discrimination remain highly destructive forces within the HIV epidemic. They are prevalent at multiple levels, from within families and communities up to governments. Numerous studies have revealed that the stigmatization of gay relations hinder people from engaging in HIV prevention, undertaking testing and seeking treatment if infected. Those fearing stigmatization or having endured past discrimination are also likelier to experience stress, depression and suicidal tendencies.
Eradicating stigmatization is thus critical to ending the epidemic. In South Africa, where almost one in seven of the population is living with HIV, the foundation supported the first ever nationwide campaign specifically addressing gay men and other men who have sex with men. Spearheaded by a local organization called We The Brave, the initiative highlights prevention and treatment issues in affirming, non-judgmental and sex-positive ways. It promotes safe sex and regular testing and connects people to preexposure prophylaxis and HIV treatment.
“The world has the tools to end AIDS,” says Elton. “But persistent stigma surrounding HIV is now the main source of transmission. Hate crimes, politically sanctioned exclusion and punishment, and social marginalization are just some of the barriers that keep people from accessing the care they desperately need. And those barriers are growing.”
In response, the foundation is launching a new $125 million global campaign. The Rocket Fund seeks to tackle rising levels of stigmatization, marginalization and poverty that combine to produce high rates of HIV and low access to healthcare. It will focus upon the most HIV-vulnerable groups globally: LGBTQ+ populations, people who use drugs and young people.
As well as enhancing access to testing, prevention and treatment, promoting human rights is at the heart of the Rocket Fund’s agenda. “We’re committed to combatting punitive, judgmental attitudes and laws targeting HIV – and the groups most vulnerable to them,” says David. “Nearly a third of global nations classify LGBTQ+ people as criminals. And in 13 countries, homosexuality is punishable by death. We are investing in advocacy to empower LGBTQ+ communities to be heard and seen wherever their rights are threatened.”
Likewise, the threat of violence, abuse and incarceration from the authorities keeps many drug users globally from seeking healthcare. The Rocket Fund is thus seeking to expand non-judgmental programs that address HIV, opioid use, unclean needles and overdoses. “We’re also pressing the case for a reallocation of funding away from criminalization of people who use drugs and toward services that benefit public health,” says David.
This emphasis on fresh, evidence-based thinking goes hand in hand with the Rocket Fund’s support for other innovations in the fight against HIV. In Kenya, for example, it will extend the foundation’s backing for a scheme that enables young people to use their phones to order drone deliveries of vital medical supplies. In South Africa, it is partnering with a local app developer to create confidential forums for young people to discuss sensitive sexual and reproductive health issues.