Canada: Canada’s sexual assault laws, as currently applied, put women living with HIV at increased risk of harm

Women living with HIV facing double jeopardy

Canada’s sexual assault laws are being applied in ways that, ironically, put some women at increased risk of harm. Women living with HIV are stuck between a rock and a hard place. If they disclose their HIV status to an intimate partner, they may be exposed to violence. If they don’t, they could go to jail for sexual assault.

People who fail to disclose HIV can be charged with fraud, invalidating sexual consent. They can be prosecuted for aggravated sexual assault, the most serious form of the crime, normally reserved for rapes compounded by physical violence. Conviction carries a penalty up to life in prison, and lifelong registry as a sex offender — even when there is no transmission of HIV nor any meaningful risk.

There is broad scientific consensus that when HIV is managed with anti-retroviral therapies, the risk of transmission is negligible, even without a condom. Today’s treatments can reduce viral loads to undetectable levels. Unfortunately, our courts haven’t caught up with the science. Legal practices are at odds with public health. Rather than hazard jail, people at risk of HIV may seek refuge in ignorance, choosing not to get tested.

Recently, Attorney General and Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould acknowledged: “The criminal justice system must adapt to better reflect the current scientific evidence. . . . This could include a review of existing charging and prosecution practices.”

The statement was welcomed by Cécile Kazatchkine, senior policy analyst with the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network and a member of the Ontario Working Group on Criminal Law and HIV Exposure. The organization has been working since 2009 to engage provincial attorneys general in developing prosecutorial guidelines that would limit prosecution to cases of intentional transmission. Foot-dragging on change has exposed Canada to increasing international criticism.

Kazatchkine believes the International AIDS Conference in Durban this past July may have been a turning point in the evolving federal position. During a plenary session Justice Edwin Cameron, South Africa’s first openly gay and HIV-positive Constitutional Court judge, singled out two nations with terrible records on HIV criminalization. “He mentioned Zimbabwe and he mentioned Canada,” she notes.

This message was compounded in the recent report by the UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which called attention to Canada’s “harsh criminal sanctions” for nondisclosure. The report joins a chorus of international organizations recommending criminalization be limited to intentional transmission of the virus.

Criminalizing nondisclosure has had a particularly harsh impact on women, who often fear admitting they are HIV-positive will provoke violent reactions. Of some 180 prosecutions to date, Kazatchkine says, at least 18 of the defendants are women, many of whom were already marginalized by poverty or abuse.

Some of the women contracted the virus while being sexually assaulted themselves; now they’re being labelled sex offenders. The law’s application also has a disproportionate impact on Aboriginal women, who comprise at least six of 18 known female defendants.

Kazatchkine sees progress toward meaningful dialogue: Minister Wilson-Raybould’s statement “is having an impact.” At a roundtable Monday with several provincial ministries, participants got a keen sense of how women with HIV are caught between prosecution and potential violence. Kazatchkine was encouraged when Tracy MacCharles, the minister responsible for women’s issues, suggested the issue could be brought before the Ontario Roundtable on Violence Against Women.

The government has not committed to specific action. But advocates are cautiously optimistic that things are finally moving in the right direction.

Published in St. Catharines Standard on Dec 10, 2016