This Friday, March 1, is Zero Discrimination Day. It was established ten years ago by UNAIDS to protect the rights of everyone and build healthier societies. The evidence is clear: only by protecting everyone’s rights can we protect everyone’s health. 

There is much to celebrate this Zero Discrimination Day. 

Among the recent triumphs in the global fight against stigma and discrimination, Cambodia’s initiative stands out – a compelling example of what can be achieved with collective action and inclusive dialogue. The recently completed “Action Plan for Addressing HIV-related Stigma and Discrimination 2023-2028” marks a significant leap forward in this endeavor.

Developed under the guidance of the National AIDS Authority (NAA) and with the energetic involvement of key players, this plan is the fruit of numerous partners that are enablers of change, pinpointing education, healthcare, and community settings as the arenas for urgent action. With the blueprint now in hand, Cambodia is not just dreaming of a stigma-free society; it is paving the vibrant streets to get there.

Important progress has been made not only in Cambodia, but also in the rest of the world. At the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, most countries in the world criminalised LGBTQI people. Now two-thirds of countries do not criminalise LGBTQI people; 38 nations have pledged to end HIV-related stigma and discrimination. These are hard-fought gains. 

Yet today, the progress that the world has made on rights is in peril. Well-organised and well-funded globally coordinated attacks to undermine the rights of LGBTQI people, and of other marginalised communities are on the rise. 

For the world to deliver on the promise to end AIDS by 2030, action is urgently needed to advance the protection of the human rights of everyone, everywhere. Countries that are beating the AIDS epidemic are doing so by repealing laws and policies that discriminate, by implementing constitutional or other non-discrimination provisions for affected communities, by expanding human rights for all and by allowing marginalised groups to lead the response. 

Acknowledging and acting upon these realities, Cambodia’s engagement with the Global Partnership for Action to Eliminate All Forms of HIV-related Stigma and Discrimination in December 2022 underscores its proactive stance to HIV-related stigma across key areas like healthcare, education, and the community.

Under the NAA’s leadership and with broad stakeholder support, Cambodia is leveraging this partnership to accelerate its efforts, turning commitments into tangible actions.

This strategic move highlights Cambodia’s commitment to inclusivity and equality, demonstrating how global cooperation can advance national initiatives towards a more accepting society.

Yet there still remain barriers and gaps for Cambodia to overcome. 

As Cambodia endeavors to reduce new HIV infections to just 250 annually by 2025, it confronts a challenging increase in cases among males aged 15 and above. 83% of new infections emerge among key populations and their clients/partners, including a notable surge among men who have sex with men, male sex workers, and transgender women.

Stigma and discrimination remain stubborn barriers, deterring individuals from early prevention and treatment and exacerbating health inequalities. 

The findings of the 2019 Stigma Index 2.0 survey revealed violations of confidentiality and trust within healthcare settings. The ripple effects extend to education and social spheres, where the LGBTQI community encounters bullying and systemic bias. Addressing and dismantling these barriers is crucial to advancing Cambodia’s goal of creating a supportive and equitable environment for every member of society.

Furthermore, within the employment sector, affected individuals have shared experiences of being required to undergo HIV testing and disclose their results to prospective employers during the job application and recruitment process, a practice notably prevalent in the microfinance and banking sector. This requirement not only infringes on privacy rights but also perpetuates stigma, erecting barriers to employment for those living with HIV.

Such practices undermine the strides made towards eliminating discrimination and underscore the urgent need for continued advocacy and legal reforms.

Addressing this issue is essential to create an inclusive and equitable workplace, where individuals are evaluated based on their professional qualifications irrespective of their HIV status.

We have hope, however, from communities on the frontlines across the world. As Dr. Martin Luther King noted, “Social progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of people.” This means that positive change in society is not guaranteed or automatic. It does not simply happen on its own, like wheels rolling down a hill. Instead, it requires the active participation and effort of individuals dedicated to making the world a better place.

In Cambodia, communities are no longer treated as problems to be managed. Instead, we recognise,empower, and support them in the HIV country response mechanism at all levels to advance their right to health, access to justice and social protections they need and deserve. 

Protecting everyone’s rights is not a favor to any group but is the way that we can protect everyone’s health, end AIDS and create happier societies for all.

Let’s celebrate Zero Discrimination Day by protecting everyone’s health and everyone’s rights.

Patricia Ongpin is UNAIDS Country Director for Cambodia, Laos and Malaysia.

Ieng Mouly is Senior Minister and Chair of the National AIDS Authority (NAA).

The views expressed are those of the authors.