HIV and AIDS in Azerbaijan: lasting stigma
“My family members say, ‘you're infected because you're gay,’ ‘you got infected because you slept with boys,’ ‘if you weren't like that, you wouldn't have it,’” says 22-year-old Miri*. “It is bad to hear such things, but somehow, we manage to go on.”
Over the past decade, community-led advocacy addressing stigma and discrimination has been increasing in Azerbaijan. Now, queer-run projects try to reach wider audiences and fight back against such stigmatizations. For instance, Y-PEER Azerbaijan and Gender Resource Center are regularly addressing this topic.
However, it is not enough to combat the narratives that have been embraced by the media and the general population for decades. Ali Aliyev, a researcher and activist on HIV and AIDS, notes that the “malicious use” of this narrative by the media means society views the disease as a “gay issue” instead of a public health issue. “This reading has led to a solidified field of prejudice and stigmatization,” they (Aliyev uses they/them pronoun) say. “Even today, HIV-related stigma continues to impact how society treats people living with HIV (PLHIV).”
Aliyev says Azerbaijan's response to HIV policies can be divided into two policies: treatment and legal remedies.
“However, this legal dimension causes the criminalization of those living with HIV rather than protecting those living with HIV. HIV criminalization is based on myths, misconceptions and ignorance about HIV and its modes of transmission. But it is compounded by the effect of HIV-related stigma which singles out HIV as a particularly egregious individual and societal harm. Understanding the disruptive power of HIV-related stigma is also important to understand the reasons for, and implications of, HIV criminalization,” Aliyev explains.
They note, however, that government policies should prioritize the rights of people living with HIV and involve a multidirectional approach that goes beyond medical treatment.
“HIV and AIDS are not just medical issues. There are also social, economic, and human rights issues. HIV and AIDS are associated with many social and economic factors that contribute to their spread, such as poverty, gender inequality, discrimination, stigma, and lack of access to education and healthcare,” they say. “By addressing these factors, it is possible to create a sustainable response to HIV and AIDS that is based on human rights, social justice, and equality.”
Miri works as a salesman in one of the shops in Baku. He was infected with HIV in December 2021 when he was 20. A month after his diagnosis, he became depressed because his body did not accept the medication. He ended up not taking anything to treat the virus for six months. No one from the center followed up. The most interest they took in his case, as he recalls, was when they asked him to identify the person who infected him.
24-year-old Humayun* is an MBA student and works with one of the queer initiatives based in Baku. Humayun says that the identity of queers living with HIV is used in public policy to humiliate and target people.“In fact, there are a lot of such stereotypes and they continue to be created,” he says, recalling the massive media coverage of a 2017 crackdown on trans sex workers in a central Baku district. Most media outlets ran headlines like “Hundreds of trans people were arrested, some have AIDS.”
While the tone of the media reports depended on the political views of the outlet, nearly all the reports more or less followed a press release from the Ministry of Internal Affairs about the arrests. The reports echoed the claim (denied by the Ministry of Health’s Republican AIDS Center) that many had tested positive for HIV.
The coverage repeated stereotypes that are well established in Azerbaijan: HIV and AIDS is a “punishment” for people who engage in homosexual or promiscuous sex. A deep-rooted narrative in society and media outlets presents them as two sides of the same problem.
Humayun stresses that government-led propaganda campaigns, like the 2017 mass arrests, resonate with the average citizen. “Because there is no awareness or low awareness of how HIV is transmitted. People do not know what is happening in the bodies of PLHIV,” Humayun notes.
Associating queer people with HIV makes it more difficult for people living with the virus to find partners.
“I think people in developed countries are more knowledgeable about this issue. I think if I had this infection in such countries, my search for a partner would have been easier. There are many obstacles in our society that prevent PLHIV from building relationships. If before we used to wonder whether we would like each other as persons, now we're wondering if my partner will accept my disease or not,” Miri explains, adding that the rejection makes it harder for people living with the disease to feel like part of the community—and leads to depression and isolation.
Aliyev, the HIV and AIDS researcher, agrees that current policies in Azerbaijan push queers living with HIV into isolation.
“Access and regular antiretroviral therapy (ART) is essential for people living with HIV, as it helps suppress the virus and improve immune function. But, ART not only suppresses the virus, but it also suppresses the virus so that it cannot be transmitted even during unprotected sexual intercourse, which is a really important improvement in HIV history. Therefore, in this case, people living with HIV can learn the meaning of U=U** (Undetectable = Untransmittable) and feel safer and stronger in inter-partner relationships,” they said.
In general, Miri believes there needs to be more outreach, and more effort to integrate people living with HIV and AIDS into society.
“Currently, there is no other place in the country that offers a support scheme except the AIDS Center,” Miri says. He notes that just recently informational posters about the virus started appearing in the Baku metro stations and on social media but the Republican AIDS Center does not even have a Facebook to raise public awareness.
“There is no other institution that can conduct a social project for PLHIV,” he says. “I think it is necessary to increase social work in this area. There are huge gaps.”
*The names have been changed to protect the identity of the respondents living with HIV.
** Undetectable = Untransmittable is a message used in HIV campaigns. It means that if someone has an undetectable viral load, they cannot sexually transmit HIV to others. U=U is supported by numerous health groups and organizations worldwide, including the World Health Organization. For more information about U=U resources please visit https://preventionaccess.org/