New EECA HIV criminalisation report shows women living with HIV bear the brunt of “legalised stigma”

The Eurasian Women’s Network on AIDS (EWNA) this week published an important new report on HIV criminalisation in the Eastern Europe and Central Asia (EECA) region. The HIV Criminalisation Scan in the countries of Eastern Europe and Central Asia for 2018-22 is based on research led by women living with HIV undertaken in 2022 and covers 11 EECA countries: Armenia, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan.

With the exception of Estonia, all the above countries have overly broad HIV-specific criminal laws. However, the four countries with the highest number of problematic cases are Belarus, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Across the region it is not uncommon for criminal cases to be initiated by health authorities rather than individual complainants. In addition, courts are often ignoring up-to-date HIV science on risk (ignoring the prevention benefit of condoms and/or treatment) and are misinterpreting intent to have sex with intent to transmit. 

Although the addition of a disclosure defence to the Belarus law in 2019 reduced the number of recorded cases from 133 in 2018 to 38 in 2021, more than 60% of all recorded cases involved female defendants.

On the other hand, HIV criminalisation cases in Russia with recorded sentences have actually increased – from 60 in 2017 to 94 in 2021 – some of which involved cases that began in earlier years. In 2021, there were 59 newly recorded HIV criminalisation cases of which 20 (33%) were against women. In addition, over the period of just a few months of 2021, activists from Russia documented eight cases of blackmail and intimidation from (male) partners threatening to make a criminal complaint against women living with HIV, highlighting the vulnerability of women living with HIV to intimate partner violence in the context of HIV criminalisation.

In Tajikistan, female sex workers living with HIV are the most likely to be arrested and prosecuted, even when the “injured party” is not the initiator of the complaint and HIV transmission is neither alleged nor proven. The stigma is perpetuated by media headlines which often conflate all women living with HIV with sex workers who are “spreading” HIV.

In Uzbekistan, the average annual number of criminal cases against people living with HIV during the reporting period (2018-22) was about 140, of which 97 went to trial (40 of which were against women).

Amongst a number of wide-ranging conclusions are the observations that the vast majority of EECA countries are “legalising stigma” against people living with HIV in their application of HIV-specific criminal laws, and that women living with HIV are bearing the brunt of this criminalisation. The authors note that HIV criminalisation is exacerbated by myriad human rights abuses against people (and especially women) living with HIV, including adoption bans, prohibited occupation lists, mandatory HIV testing before marriage, restrictions on admission to shelters based on HIV-positive status, as well as the criminalisation of LGBTIQ people, sex workers and people who use drugs.

However, despite the many difficulties in the region, an increasing number of NGOs and individual activists are actively and productively working on mitigating the harm of HIV criminalisation by providing support to people living with HIV, including as public defenders in the courts. This work has been scaled-up thanks to a growing recognition from international donors and UN agencies that work to limit or end HIV criminalisation – amongst other punitive laws and policies impacting the HIV response – is essential for the region.

The full 70-page report, published by EWNA on behalf of the HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE coalition, and funded by the Robert Carr Fund for civil society networks, is available in the Resource Library of the HIV Justice Academy in the original Russian or the machine-translated English.