Women Living with HIV in Croatia Battle Stigma, Discrimination

by Emili Ema Sedlar

Zagreb, Croatia: One of the most challenging topics to talk about in Croatia, from my experience, is opening the discussion about HIV/AIDS– an issue everyone needs to be included in, because it is an important subject that requires a constructive and beneficial dialogue. When talking about HIV/AIDS in Croatia with ordinary people, many of them are ignorant on this issue, giving out excuses that “if it isn’t in my life, then I shouldn’t be a part of it,” or “why should I speak about it?” These kinds of excuses open doors to discrimination, violence, stigmatization and segregation.

The biggest concern lies in education, where the secondary education system does not talk enough about HIV/AIDS–not only in a informative way (even though it is extremely lacking in its content and focuses even there), but even on how to accept people living with HIV. In a study “HIV-related stigma and discrimination among people living with HIV in Croatia,” which was published in 2015, confirmed that 82% of people living with HIV in Croatia (based on the sample of 160 people in the study) experienced some form of discrimination.

In this article, the focus will be on the discrimination women living with HIV face in everyday lives in Croatia and how education in primary and secondary schools can be helpful for a more open minded society. Sanja Belak Skugor, a psychologist from the Zagreb University Hospital for Infectious Disease, and Dr. Josip Begovac, an HIV/AIDS specialist, described from their professional stand point what it looks like for a woman to live with HIV in Croatia.

Mrs. Belak Skugor explained how in Croatia, many women who are HIV-positive are automatically seen as promiscuous and unfaithful “in best case,” or as sex workers or intravenous drug users. “When talking about HIV in Croatia, most people are inclined to stigmatize, both for men and women. If a man is HIV-positive, people think he’s gay. However, when a woman is HIV-positive, she then must have been unfaithful to her partner, or she is promiscuous,” described Belak Skugor. Furthermore, when tackling different forms of discrimination that women face, there are a number of them. One, she explained is a secondary discrimination. “If there is an HIV-positive mother, not only will the mother be discriminated against, but so will the child. For example, in the health sector, a child that has a referral will be noted in his/her document that she is a child of a HIV-positive parent. These are examples that are known of and that are extremely discriminatory,” illustrated Belak Skugor.

Moreover, she described some specific situations of discriminations women living with HIV go through in the health care system. For example, many pregnant women living with HIV experience difficulty when deciding where to deliver their baby. “Maternity hospitals refuse to help HIV-positive women who are pregnant, and this is where they face many obstacles. In most cases, many women from all over Croatia came to us at the clinic for infectious diseases so that we could make arrangements for a c-section. HIV-positive women who give birth at our famous maternity hospital called Petrova Hospital are in the same day brought back to us with the baby. Normally, after a woman gives birth, she has to stay in the hospital so that doctors can keep track of the mother’s and baby’s health. We do not have gynecologists here who could help out and a healthy baby is exposed to infectious diseases at the hospital.”

On the other hand, Dr. Begovac explained that even though this is one bad example, there were still good situations where the two hospitals worked together into helping HIV positive women. “The situation is better now than it was before, but we need to remember the process to normalization is still slow,” Dr. Begovac answered.

When asked about whether educating youth would be helpful in order to become more curious and open about HIV/AIDS, Belak Skugor explained that Croatia has a long way to go, since it is an extremely conservative country. Specifically, the discussion was on the idea of implementing a system in which women would be able to open up about their status, instead of “hiding away“ out of fear of hatred and intolerance. “Unfortunately, our society isn’t ready to bring in women into schools where they can openly talk about their lives and HIV status. Frankly, I would be afraid of the consequences the woman would have to go through, since there are people who are extremely primitive and would probably say bad things to her.”

Belak Skugor noted some of the strategies she would take in order for this kind of education to become successful. “I believe that we need to educate teachers and administrators about the topic. It is important to guide them on what kind of a discussion in the classroom is expected and what is important to highlight for students. If they teach students those stereotypes I was mentioning earlier, there will be a greater stigma and that is something that should never happen.”

Dr. Josip Begovac also agreed how this is a delicate subject to talk about, and there is still difficulty opening up a dialogue about HIV/AIDS since it is a subject that is stigmatized in Croatia. “Simply put, many people have a difficult time talking about their HIV/AIDS status. The dialogue is left in a intimate circle,” explained Begovac.

Additionally, he explained that it would be ideal to talk about HIV/AIDS from a personal perspective, but there are still obstacles a person living with HIV would have to face, especially a form of “social stigmatization.” Begovac mentioned how two years ago, the hospital made an educational film where a woman living with HIV talked about her experience; however, the film was only projected to a specific group of doctors.

Belak Skugor mentioned how just around 10 years ago, one hospital in Zagreb created a project called Memo AIDS, which talked about educating young children in high schools about HIV/AIDS and how to open up a dialogue about sex education. The project faced many problem because of the the views of the Croatian Bishops’ Conference. “They criticized the curriculum, saying that we’re promoting sexual behavior instead of protecting it and making children aware of differences. They also did not like the idea of us promoting condoms as a protection method,” Belak Skugor recalled.

Towards the end of the conversation, Belak Skugor pointed out that, even though there are still a great number of issues when talking about prejudice and HIV, she still has hope that one day, a successful and valuable education on HIV/AIDS in school will be practiced.

“I hope that one day, we will get to talk about our differences and about how important it is to help and accept people, not only people who are HIV-positive, but people who are different. I believe that we are heading in a good direction in society, since there are many non-governmental organizations that are fighting for meaningful HIV/AIDS education, where they want to talk about people living with HIV.”

Finally, she explained that every person living with HIV she’s worked with has inspired her to move forward and help even further as much as she can. “I admire the strength they have to fight for their lives. I’ve learned how people really can be brave and courageous no matter how hard life is. And when talking specifically about women, there were many of them who never believed they could one day achieve motherhood and they did. I admire those women every day for their strength and the courage they bring into their lives. I believe they should be an inspiration to all of us,” concluded Belak Skugor.