As women around the world celebrate the international 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence, the Women Won’t Wait. End HIV and Violence Against Women. Now (WWW) Campaign today expressed concern at the alarming trend of governments criminalizing HIV exposure and transmission worldwide. More than 58 countries worldwide have laws that criminalize HIV transmission and/or exposure or use existing laws to prosecute HIV positive people for supposed transmission of the virus, with another 33 countries considering similar legislation.
The campaign noted that the trend to criminalise HIV transmission and exposure is short-sighted, ineffective and in violation of human rights. Further, it will undermine global AIDS prevention, treatment and care efforts.
According to Neelanjana Mukhia of ActionAid, the secretariat of the Women Won’t Wait campaign, laws that criminalize exposure and transmission compound women’s risk to violence. Women are likely to know their status first, as a result of their interface with prenatal and antenatal health services. Women’s ability to safely disclose their status and adhere to treatment is already severely limited by the threat of violence from their intimate partners and/or families. The threat of prosecution by the state will only increase their inability to manage their health and well being. We are very concerned that such laws will only result in disproportionate targeting and prosecuting of women for the spread of HIV/AIDS.
Secondly, existing stigma and discrimination HIV positive men and women face is likely to be reinforced by these laws making access to HIV prevention, testing and counselling and treatment services even more difficult.
Thirdly, women and men in sex work will be at even greater threat, especially in countries which criminalise sex work. According to Meena Seshu of SANGRAM, a member of the campaign in India, the law to criminalise HIV transmission and exposure will be sure to increase stigma and rights violations sex workers already face. This law has the potential to threaten or even reverse gains made to secure sex workers rights and their access to HIV services.
Finally, in some countries which have passed the law, women can be prosecuted for mother to child transmission of HIV. This is particularly outrageous when globally prevention of mother to child transmission coverage is only at 33%. In resource poor settings, criminalization puts the blame solely on the woman for transmission that she may be unable to prevent due to dismally poor PMTCT coverage. .
“Criminalization does nothing to address the real problem which is women’s overall lack of power in society. As a campaign we have said over and over again, there is no magic bullet or quick fix to address the growing pandemics. We already know that programs that address the rights of women and girls work. Instead of considering and passing ineffective laws, we call on governments to fulfil their longstanding and legally binding commitments to end violence against women and support survivors of violence. ” says Alessandra Nilo of Gestos, a member of the campaign in Brazil.
“At this point of our efforts to address HIV and AIDS, we have already learnt so much. We already know what works are interventions that uphold and advance human rights, generally and women’s rights specifically. We are asking governments especially in Africa to fulfil their responsibility to end the two intersecting epidemics. We are also asking them to stop couching these draconian laws as efforts to address violence against women, instead resource and implement laws that indeed respect, protect and fulfil women’s human right to be free of violence. ”says Christine Butegwa from Akina Mama wa Afrika, a member of the campaign in Uganda.
The WWW campaign adds that what is really needed is to channel more resources into strengthening efforts that address the driving force of the HIV&AIDS pandemic – gender inequality and violence against women. This includes increasing current funding for programmes that integrally address issues of violence, stigma, and discrimination that fuel this epidemic or we will continue to lose ground.
The use of criminal law to address HIV infection is inappropriate, ineffective and likely to undermine HIV prevention, treatment, care and support efforts and increase women’s risk to violence. All societies in the world should say no to this law.
The Women Wont Wait campaign is an international coalition of organizations and networks working to promote women's health and human rights in the struggle to address HIV and AIDS and end all forms of violence against women and girls. For more information on the Women Won’t Wait campaign: www.womenwontwait.org
Members of WWW: Action Aid; African Women’s Development and Communications Network (FEMNET); Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID); Akina Mama wa Afrika; Center for Women’s Global Leadership (CWGL); Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE); Fundación para Estudio e Investigación de la Mujer (FEIM); GESTOS-Soropositividade, Comunicação & Gênero; International Community of Women Living with HIV&AIDS Southern Africa (ICW-Southern Africa); International Women’s AIDS Caucus; International Women’s Health Coalition (IWHC); Latin American and Caribbean Women’s Health Network; Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA); Program on International Health and Human Rights, Harvard School of Public Health; SANGRAM; VAMP; and Women and Law in Southern Africa (WLSA).