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HIV and AIDS stigma defies traditional care in the Pacific

4 October 2011
“When your labour is not available for sale, what does social protection mean to your unpaid caring work and the lives of all in your household?”

The traditional Pacific care system in Papua New Guinea has broken down due to the stigma associated with HIV and AIDS, leaving the sick and their carers isolated and vulnerable.

A two-day Commonwealth roundtable on ‘Sustaining gender-responsive social protection and economic resilience’ learned that centuries old communal care in the Pacific has been unable to overcome the stigma and discrimination, with orphans in Papua New Guinea more likely to be rejected by extended families if they are sick with HIV and AIDS.

The roundtable from 3 to 4 October is being held at the Commonwealth Secretariat’s headquarters in London and attended by academics, experts and officials from around the Commonwealth, including Vanuatu’s Justice Minister Ralph Reganvanu. It is reviewing the outcome of research on unpaid carers in the household looking after those with HIV and AIDS in Bangladesh, Botswana, Canada, Guyana, India, Jamaica, Namibia, New Zealand, Nigeria, Papua New Guinea and Uganda.

The research has been published in a new book ‘Who Cares?: The Economics of Dignity’, commissioned by the Secretariat and based on research by Dr Marilyn Waring, Dr Anit Mukherjee, the late Dr Robert Carr, and Dr Meena Shivdas.

The book highlights that unpaid carers are living in ‘servitude’, with little choice or state support to care for family members sick with HIV and AIDS.

Dr Waring, a feminist economist and public policy expert specialising in the economics of unpaid work, told the roundtable on 3 October that governments need to take urgent action on social protection to guard the rights of unpaid carers.

But first she said the definition of social protection, which relates to policies and programmes designed to reduce poverty and vulnerability, must be expanded to include unpaid carers.

She said: “Current discourses on social protection assume that a person is work-ready or available to access public works programmes. But when your labour is not available for sale, what does social protection mean to assist your unpaid caring work and the lives of all in your household?

“To take care of a terminally ill person is to descend into poverty, in anybody’s language.”

Naren Prasad of the International Labour Organization said economic statistics from the past 50 years has shown the benefits of social protection policies.

“Countries that have seen social protection as a necessity and have spent more money on social protection have developed much better, such as the Nordic countries and Japan,” said Mr Prasad.

The social protection programmes discussed by the roundtable include a school feeding programme in Botswana, cash for work, cash transfers, public works programmes, and free prescription drugs for pregnant women with HIV and AIDS. Major issues were land and inheritance, recognition of children’s capacity to make life decisions, and community defined and directed social protection programmes.

The outcome of the roundtable will contribute to the development of a social protection framework for the Secretariat.

“The Secretariat will continue to advocate for social protection, mindful that for our small states, affordability and sustaining outreach to vulnerable populations are important factors for consideration in instituting social protection measures,” said Commonwealth Deputy Secretary-General Ransford Smith.

‘Who Cares?: The Economics of Dignity’ was launched at the Secretariat’s headquarters at the end of the first day of the roundtable by Mr Smith and the book’s authors.