Words by Abi Scaife
HIV has long had stigma attached. In the '80s, when the illness was most prevalent, much of the population assumed something as innocuous as sharing a cup or touching someone with HIV could cause you to become infected.
In truth, HIV is an STI - meaning the only way to spread the infection is through anal, oral or vaginal sex, breast milk or through shared needles or other drug injection equipment.
Unfortunately, the stigma of the '80s that so devastated those with HIV - particularly in the LGBTQ+ community - is still rife, and many people simply don’t understand how HIV works or how it is treated.
“Public awareness about the virus hasn't quite caught up with the medical advancements - of which there have been many over the years,” explains Damian John, a representative of Wandsworth Oasis, a charity that helps to raise money and awareness to help those living with HIV in South London. “The fact that people on effective treatment can't pass it on is one of the key messages that we try and get across in our shops.”
“That being said, HIV still remains a really important health challenge and anyone is at risk of catching HIV if they're having unprotected sex or using and sharing needles.”
Wandsworth Oasis supports the HIV community in myriad different ways, principally through their nine charity shops across London. Here, they sell all sorts of donated clothing, bric-a-brac and furniture - even taking donations from companies - like the donation given by SmileyⓇ, the sponsor of Smiley News. Plus, they even have free HIV testing in-store, if you time it right.
“All of our shops give away free condoms,” adds Damian. Condoms, and other forms of making sex safer like dental dams, are a really important way of helping to prevent the spread of HIV. “I think in five years, we've given away something like 50,000 free condoms just across nine shops in London.”
“In the cost of living crisis that we're experiencing now, people have to choose whether to buy condoms or food. It's great that we're able to offer that service and provide them [for] free.”
Wandsworth Oasis also helps signpost people to places where they can get medical assistance - or PReP and PEP, to those in the know. For those who aren’t - here’s a quick explainer:
PReP stands for pre-exposure prophylaxis - it’s a treatment you take before being exposed to HIV, to help prevent infection. PReP is recommended for those who have an HIV positive partner, might share needles, or who regularly have sex without using a condom.
PEP stands for post-exposure prophylaxis - a treatment you take when you think, or know, you have been exposed to HIV. Think of it like the morning after pill, but instead of helping to prevent pregnancy, it helps to prevent HIV.
Wandsworth Oasis has so many initiatives to support people - whether they have just been diagnosed with HIV, or whether they have been living with it for a long time.
One of the initiatives they are most proud of is the Re:Assure Women’s Project that Wandsworth Oasis helps to fund, through the charity Positive East. Contrary to popular belief, HIV isn’t an illness that's unique to the gay community, but something that can affect anyone of any sexuality.
The Re:Assure project is a specialist programme for HIV positive female refugees and asylum seekers and domestic violence survivors. The programme helps these women to overcome traumatic experiences, including trauma around their HIV status, using therapy.
“That's our biggie that we're really really proud of, because it's really niche,” explains Damian. “It's one of those things that you wouldn't think is problem … [but] without us giving the funds to Positive East, they wouldn't be able to signpost these women to the medical treatment that they need [for women] that will find themselves in a situation that they never dreamed of.”
HIV can make some of society’s most vulnerable people even more so. This means that reaching out to refugees diagnosed with HIV and helping them navigate the medical care needed to manage HIV, is incredibly important work.
If you want to support Wandsworth Oasis and any of the amazing initiatives that they fund, you can do so by dropping off a donation to any of their nine London stores, or by getting in contact on their website.
At Smiley Movement, we like to elevate the work of charities across the world. Here are three charities whose causes align with the themes in this article.
Terrence Higgins Trust. The UK's leading HIV and sexual health charity that supports people living with HIV. Learn more here.
National Aids Trust. This is the UK's HIV rights charity, working to stop HIV from standing in the way of health, dignity and equality, and to end new HIV transmissions. Support them here.
Wandsworth Oasis. This is a local charity raising money for people living with HIV, largely through its nine charity shops in and around the borough. Find out more here.