Last week, the Uganda Women’s Network published “Criminalising HIV/AIDS: Not a win-win situation,” which speaks out against the criminalization of HIV transmission. They rightly point out that there is no evidence to show that this is an effective HIV prevention strategy, and these laws may have dangerous consequences.
The trend towards making it a crime to infect someone with HIV escalated in Sub-Saharan Africa in 2004 when a group of parliamentarians from 18 West and Central African countries gathered in N’djamena, Chad to write a HIV-specific legislative template. This template, called the “Model law for STI/HIV/AIDS for West and Central Africa,” has since been revised and adopted as national law in at least 15 African countries.
The International Women’s Health Coalition has been following this trend closely and shares the concerns of the Uganda Women’s Network that these laws could heighten stigma and discrimination and contribute to human rights violations, particularly against women, young people, and people living with or affected by HIV/AIDS (PLWHA). Most people living with HIV/AIDS—more than 22 of 33.2 million—live in sub-Saharan Africa and, among adults, 61 percent are women. In this region, three young women are infected for every young man, ages 15-24.
Many people are infected by partners who do not know they are living with HIV or do not have access to information and condom negotiation skills, male and female condoms, and anti-retroviral therapy, they need and want to protect their loved ones. Furthermore, only a third of pregnant women in sub-Saharan Africa have access to the anti-retroviral therapies they need to prevent mother-to-child transmission. Yet, some of the laws being passed are broad enough that women who transmit HIV to their infants during pregnancy, labor and delivery, or through breastfeeding could be criminally charged. Threatening people with criminal charges for infecting their partner or child when they do not have the resources they need to prevent infections is ludicrous and counter-productive.
In recognition of the potentially dangerous consequences of these laws, the Southern Africa Development Committee (SADC) has developed alternative legislative language. SADC recognizes that HIV epidemic cannot be successfully addressed unless we first ensure that all people, especially women and young people, can exercise their rights to sexual and reproductive health services. Therefore, SADC developed language that is especially strong in this regard. It charges states with eliminating practices that contribute to women’s vulnerability to HIV infection such as female genital mutilation, early and forced marriage, and widow inheritance. It also recognizes that all people, including those living with HIV, have the right to live free of violence and discrimination, including sexual violence inside and outside of marriage. Finally, it further protects PLWHA by assuring them the right to marry, divorce, and bear children.
This alternative language is an invaluable tool for advocates in Uganda and other countries that have adopted HIV criminalization laws or are considering doing so. In addition to advocating against using the criminal law to pursue people living with HIV, we must continue to push governments and donor agencies to focus on a meaningful, sustainable response to the pandemic by empowering women, particularly young women, to protect themselves against HIV infections.