BANGKOK (TrustLaw) – Punitive laws and social stigma not only prevent women living with HIV/AIDS from accessing much-needed healthcare services but lead to violence and discrimination against them, according to the head of the U.N. agency for HIV/AIDS.
Such laws and fear of social ostracism further hamper efforts to protect women at risk from catching the virus, said Michele Sidibe, UNAIDS executive director.
If a woman is HIV-positive,"what is happening most of the time is that the husband is dying and the wife is finding herself thrown out of the house (because of stigma) and the laws are not enabling (women) to be protected,” Sidibe said.
Problems include weak or non-implementation of laws to protect women from violence; laws that deny women inheritance rights and lack of legislation to address and outlaw bigamy, polygamy and marital rape.
According to UNAIDS, HIV is the leading cause of death and disease among women of reproductive age (15-49 years) worldwide.
Fear of being ostracised prevents many women from disclosing their HIV status and stops them from accessing life-saving treatment. Moreover, blanket criminal laws on HIV transmission (at least 56 countries in the world have laws criminalising HIV transmission and/or exposure) means mothers whose babies were born with HIV can be subject to criminal prosecution.
In addition, women living with HIV/AIDS often find themselves robbed of reproductive rights, Sidibe said.
“I met a lady who told me that she had to endure forced sterilisation because she was HIV- positive and she wanted to get pregnant. This was in Africa but it’s happening everywhere.”
Sidibe described such practices as “not really creating a conducive environment” to fight the AIDS epidemic.
VIOLENCE AND DISEMPOWERMENT
Sidibe was in Bangkok in mid-February for a two-day regional meeting, the first by the Global Commission on HIV and the Law – an independent body of leaders on HIV-related legal and human rights issues – to discuss how laws can support rather than block efforts to respond to HIV/AIDS.
In addition to addressing the needs of women, the commission discussed laws and practices that criminalise people living with HIV and compromise the rights of children, and fair trade agreements that impede production of low-cost generic drugs needed for treatment.
More than eight years ago, then U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan pronounced HIV/AIDS in Africa as having a woman’s face, pushing the agenda of women’s rights and needs on the world’s stage in fighting the epidemic.
In Africa, 60 percent of people living with HIV are female. In Asia, women represented 35 percent of all adult HIV infections in 2008, more than doubling from 17 percent in 1990, according to a 2009 UNAIDS report.
Sidibe said such numbers can be reduced considerably by enabling women to have access to preventive measures and empowering them, but he worries that social factors and violence may continue to fuel infection rates.
“We are seeing an increase in young girls being pregnant at an early age, even in Asia. Then you have unsafe abortions, which all will create more opportunities for being infected,” he said.
Violence, ranging from domestic abuse to cultural practices such as female genital mutilation, is a key driver of the epidemic. According to UNAIDS, women who have experienced violence are at triple the risk of infection compared to those who have not. They also are less likely to negotiate for safe sex, go for HIV testing or seek treatment.
About 33.4 million people worldwide are infected with the HIV virus that can lead to AIDS; half of them are women. Since AIDS emerged in the 1980s, almost 60 million people have been infected and 25 million have died.
NEED TO BE PRAGMATIC
One of the goals of the Global Commission on HIV and the Law is to address the problem of discrimination against women by punitive or inadequate laws which put them at higher risk of being infected with HIV, and discrimination against those already infected with the virus. Both cases lead to the disempowerment of women, according to the commission.
Sidibe is adamant that the women who need to be empowered include not just faithful wives or partners of drug users, men who have sex with men or with multiple women, but also sex workers.
According to the 2009 report by UNAIDS and civil society organisations, an estimated 50 million women in Asia are at risk of becoming infected with HIV from their intimate partners, either as a result of men buying sex or engaging in intravenous drug use.
“So it’s important for us not to be naïve and understand that if we don’t give statutes or social status to those most at risk, they will become the channel through which an epidemic can grow,” Sidibe said.
“For me this is very important because we are missing a group of people who could be saved and who could not continue to transmit the infection and who could have their reproductive lives respected,” he said.
But as long as punitive laws and social stigma prevent women from seeking treatment and taking measures against contracting the virus, Sidibe said the infection rate among women will continue to grow.