On November 16th the world community will observe the 19th International Day for Tolerance. While we are reminded of the security and human rights implications of intolerance (which often takes the form of stigma and discrimination), this day also provides an opportunity to highlight the vital contribution of tolerance and acceptance to achieving important public health objectives and impact, especially those focusing on groups living on the margins of many societies.
Here in the Marshall Islands, tolerance is key to providing access to care for people who are at high risk of either acquiring or transmitting the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Among other groups, this includes men and women trapped in commercial sex work; men who have sex with men (MSM), transgender persons, seafarers, pregnant women (to prevent mother-to-child transmission), and youths (high teen pregnancy means high sexual activity without protection). Programs and policies must recognize that eliminating stigma and discrimination is critical to ensuring that all people feel safe accessing HIV/AIDS care and treatment services. Programs that treat people with dignity and respect will have the greatest impact.
When trying to achieve an AIDS-free generation, any intolerance that creates barriers for commercial sex workers, MSM, transgender persons, people who inject drugs or other vulnerable groups from accessing essential services can lead to considerable loss of life.
Tolerance requires treating everyone, even those who are different, with dignity and respect. This extends to all people regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. As President Barack Obama recently declared, “the struggle to end discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons is a global challenge, and one that is central to the United States” commitment to promoting human rights.”
On this International Day for Tolerance, let us affirm that all persons –commercial sex workers, people who inject illegal drugs, MSM, transgender persons as well as the wider LGBT community, and any group that suffers the negative health effects of discrimination such as persons with disabilities- should also be free to access and receive essential health services from providers who treat them with dignity and respect.
We call on all partners in our shared goal of controlling HIV in the Marshall Islands to practice tolerance in all aspects of service delivery. The goal of an AIDS-free generation will remain unfulfilled until every Marshallese feels that he or she will be treated with tolerance and respect when seeking services to preserve health if already infected, to prevent infection of others, or to escape the grasp of addicting drugs.
Join us in reaching out in tolerance to everyone in need so that together, we may achieve that longed-for goal of an AIDS-free generation in the Marshall Islands.