Why Is Brazil Moving Backwards on HIV?

For many years, Brazil has widely been lauded for taking bold stands in support of the sexual rights and health of women and young people, especially when it comes to HIV and AIDS. But it now appears that this proud legacy of recognizing human rights for all is at risk.

In 2005, Brazil famously rejected $40 million of AIDS funding from the United States rather than sign President Bush’s “anti-prostitution pledge.” At the time, government health officials stated that working with sex workers was critical to reducing HIV infection rates in the country (turns out they were right). So it came as a shock to many HIV activists when the Brazilian government last month abruptly suspended an HIV prevention campaign directed at sex workers and dismissed the head of the country’s HIV/AIDS department. (Ironically, three weeks later the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the “anti-prostitution pledge” policy.)

During last year’s Carnival—Brazil’s most popular and decadent holiday—the Ministry of Health similarly suspended a campaign to reach young men who have sex with men, another vulnerable population. This action followed a 2011 decision to stop distribution of an anti-homophobia booklet. These developments are especially troubling given that stigma and discrimination push gay men further underground, making them more susceptible to HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.

The International Women’s Health Coalition (IWHC), which has a long history of working with sexual and reproductive health and rights groups in Brazil, urged Brazilian health minister Alexandre Padilha to reinstate HIV policies that are grounded in human rights and based on evidence. In a letter to Padilha, IWHC President Françoise Girard wrote:

“These actions represent a serious setback for HIV/AIDS policies and programs in Brazil. Instead of addressing the remaining challenges—preventing the epidemic among vulnerable populations such as young women, young men who have sex with men, and sex workers—the Ministry of Health appears to be reversing course and putting at risk what had already been gained. The international community is watching these developments in Brazil closely and with great concern.”

Activists in Brazil say these regressive stances on sexual and reproductive health and rights are being driven by religious conservatives within the government. Last month, a finance committee in the House of Representatives approved a bill known as the “statute of the unborn, ” which was championed by the Catholic church. If enacted, this statute would bestow legal rights to embryos and criminalize abortion in cases of rape and incest (abortion is already restricted in many other cases). The bill is now pending review by a House justice committee before advancing to the Senate.

In her letter, Girard addressed the disturbing trend of politics trumping human rights and public health.

“Conservative pressure on the government and challenges to the secular state can never justify a retreat from human rights and public health. The International Women’s Health Coalition urges the Ministry of Health to change course and ensure that human rights are once again the core principle of its HIV—and indeed all of its health—policies.”

You can read the letter here (in both English and Portuguese).


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