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ATHENA Network addresses HIV-related discrimination through laws

Launch of ‘10 Reasons Why Criminalization of HIV Exposure or Transmission Harms Women’.

The legislative trend toward criminalizing HIV exposure or transmission undermines public health and women’s human rights.’

Tyler Crone, Co-Founder and Coordinating Director of the ATHENA Network.

Responding to current trends towards criminalizing HIV transmission and exposure, human rights and AIDS activists are raising concerns about the implications of these laws, especially for women.

Calling for rights-based approaches in the response to HIV and AIDS, the publication ‘10 Reasons Why Criminalization of HIV Exposure or Transmission Harms Women clearly illustrates how criminalizing HIV exposure or transmission – far from providing justice for women – endangers and further oppresses women. This document, with 21 original endorsing organizations from around the world, affirms the protection and advancement of women’s rights as key for effective HIV and AIDS responses, and opposes laws that criminalize HIV exposure or transmission.

Women continue to be disproportionately infected and affected by HIV and AIDS. More than half of all people living with HIV are women, and women continue to be at high risk of HIV infection and of related rights abuses. Thus, any response to HIV and AIDS should take into account the effects that the pandemic, and the responses to it, have upon women and women’s vulnerability to HIV infection. Given the gendered societal context in which laws that criminalize HIV transmission or exposure will be applied and implemented, it is more likely to be women who will be prosecuted and feel the consequences of such legislation.

Recently, more than 20 countries in sub-Saharan Africa alone have passed legislation with clauses ranging from mandatory HIV testing and disclosure, to criminalizing exposure or transmission of HIV. Similar laws have been enacted, or are pending, in parts of Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean. However, as argued by Johanna Kehler, Director of the AIDS Legal Network, South Africa:

‘What we need are interventions that address women’s HIV risks; not legislation that increases women’s vulnerabilities to HIV transmission and to rights abuses. We need laws that protect women’s rights and not tools that criminalize women. We need to focus on removing barriers to effective HIV responses, not on creating additional obstacles for women’s access to available HIV prevention, treatment, care, and support. Criminalizing HIV transmission is indeed ‘bad policy’; as it threatens human rights and harms women.’

While a call to apply criminal law to HIV exposure and transmission is often driven by a well intentioned wish to protect women, it does nothing to address the gender-based violence or the deep economic, social, and political inequalities that are at the root of women’s and girls’ disproportionate vulnerability to HIV.

‘Laws that criminalize HIV exposure and transmission will further victimize and oppress women; as these laws will aggravate the risk of violence and abuse, reinforce gendered inequalities, promote fear and stigma, and ultimately increase women’s risks to HIV and HIV-related rights abuses’ stated Michaela Clayton, Director of the AIDS and Rights Alliance for Southern Africa.

Endorse 10 Reasons Why Criminalization of HIV Exposure or Transmission Harms Women’ by sending an email with your name, country of residence, and affiliated institution to