Break the stigma before it breaks you
“Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth”
This was the mandate God gave humans in Genesis. Fruitfulness can mean different things to different people, and it can find expression both in secular and religious outlets, but the way most of us view fruitfulness is within the confines of marriage, accomplished through reproduction. Unfortunately, the fulfillment of this mandate can often be hampered by the presence of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), which can result in fertility issues for a woman or interfere with her sexual health.
Society tends to show more sympathy toward an individual suffering from a disease like cancer than to an individual suffering from an STD, like HIV/AIDS- and that’s a problem. People usually feel that the former was a victim, while the latter brought the disease upon themselves, probably due to irresponsible behavior. Because of these stereotypes, it is easy to assume things like this can’t happen to us or our loved ones. My perspective changed after my older sister suffered a miscarriage five months into her pregnancy due to trichomoniasis, an STD. I learned that instead of being in denial about STDs or masking our disapproval with a holier-than-thou attitude, we should take an active role in curbing the problem.
This year, I took a step towards this goal by competing in and winning a Social Venture Challenge at my college in Massachusetts, where I presented my idea for a nonprofit (ARISE) that focuses on improving the sexual health of Nigerian youths. Nigeria has the second highest rate of HIV/AIDS infection in the world today, with an estimated 3.7 percent of the population (168.8 million) living with the disease. When compared to the United States, an individual in Nigeria is five times more likely to contract HIV/AIDS and 15 times more likely to die during infancy (If It Were Your Home).
The mission of The ARISE Africa Foundation is to break the stigma surrounding STD testing by “Actively Raising Interests in Sexual Epidemics” (ARISE) among youths in Nigeria and the surrounding African nations. By doing this, we also hope to assist Nigeria with meeting the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, specifically reducing child mortality, improving maternal health and combating HIV/AIDs, malaria and other diseases. The ARISE team intends to do this through a three-part strategy: educating people about the diseases, using celebrities as positive role models, and conducting a massive testing to encourage (early) testing habits.
I believe that it’s the responsibility of humans, especially Christians, to engage in issues regarding healthy sexual behaviors – regardless of their position on premarital sex- because we have been called to love one another. 1 John 4: 7-8 reads:
“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.”
We see this love further demonstrated through Christ who showed compassion and mercy towards those who were ostracized by society.
In most African cultures, individuals with STDs are often discriminated against and sometimes humiliated, both verbally and physically. As a result, the stigma associated with having an STD hinders many from seeking (early) testing or even getting medical treatment for the disease. Similarly, when we offer skeptical sympathy for those who suffer from STDs, we are perpetuating this stigma. In addition, we might also be closing our minds to the possibility of STDs contracted through rape, abuse or even a loving relationship between married couples. By looking out for the interests of others, showing compassion, and not making assumptions about their situations, we could help save our neighbors, loved ones or even ourselves from becoming a victim of STDs.
Nigeria is only one country that suffers from high rates of STDs, and I believe the necessary response is to actively get involved in raising awareness and promote testing and treatment for individuals living with these diseases, both at home and abroad. As the ARISE slogan reads, “we need to break the stigma surrounding testing, before it breaks us. We are the next generation and there is no better time to take action than now!”