New report shows how women living with HIV are leading the response against HIV criminalisation in the EECA region

A new report produced by the Eurasian Women’s Network on AIDS with the Global Network of People Living with HIV on behalf of HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE, illustrates how women living with HIV, who are disproportionally impacted by HIV criminalisation across the Eastern Europe and Central Asia (EECA) region, have also been the leaders in research, advocacy and activism against it. The report is now available in English after being originally published in Russian in January.

The report illustrates how HIV criminalisation and gender inequality are intimately and inextricably linked. By highlighting prosecution data from Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia and Ukraine disaggregated by sex, the report shows how the burden of HIV criminalisation is falling upon women.

The report also includes some heart-breaking personal stories including that of a woman in Russia who was prosecuted for breastfeeding her baby, as well as several women in Russia blackmailed by former partners who threatened to report them for alleged HIV exposure as a way to control, coerce, or abuse them.

The evidence provided in the report clearly demonstrates that HIV criminalisation not only fails to protect women from HIV, but worsens their status in society, making them even more susceptible to violence and structural inequalities due to the way their HIV-positive status is framed by the criminal law.

The report goes on to explore how women living with HIV in the region are vulnerable to a range of economic consequences including loss of property, as well as ostracism and discrimination in their communities, including being separated from their children, because:

  • Women living with HIV’s reproductive and maternal choices are controlled by, and can be abused by, the state.
  • Women living with HIV in partnerships with HIV-negative men can be threatened with prosecution, or be prosecuted, even if there has been prior disclosure and consent to the ‘risk’ and even when condoms were used or the woman had an undetectable viral load.
  • Confidential medical information can be illegally shared with law enforcement agencies.

The report also shows a direct connection between HIV criminalisation and other forms of criminalisation – notably the use and possession of drugs, and of sex work – that exacerbate the burden of discrimination, the violation of rights, and violence experienced by women living with HIV in the region.

Despite the difficult picture painted, the report provides hope, however.

It is the mobilisation of the women’s community and the meaningful participation of HIV-positive women and their allies in advocacy for law reform, rights protections – and in the preparation of alternative reports to UN Committees such as the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) – that are making a real difference in the fight against HIV criminalisation in the region.

Read the report in English or Russian.

In memoriam: Rosemary Namubiru
HIV criminalisation survivor

Our thoughts this week are with the family and friends of Rosemary Namubiru who passed away last weekend in Kampala, Uganda.

Rosemary was a dedicated nurse as well as a mother and grandmother – and a courageous HIV criminalisation survivor. In 2016, at our Beyond Blame pre-conference to AIDS 2016 in Durban, South Africa, she spoke with great dignity about her horribly unjust experiences at the hands of the criminal legal system and media.

In January 2014, Rosemary was wrongfully accused of intentionally exposing a child to HIV while administering an injection. The child did not acquire HIV. However, the accusations created a media frenzy at a time when Uganda was discussing whether to enact the HIV Prevention and Control Act that, amongst a number of problematic provisions, allows for stringent punishments for the vague ‘crimes’ of attempted and intentional HIV transmission.

The inflammatory media coverage, which included showing her arrest live on television, meant that she was found guilty in the court of public opinion long before her trial, singled out and vilified in the press because of her HIV-positive status.

Originally charged with attempted murder, she was eventually convicted of criminal negligence. However, on appeal, the judge found that her initial three-year sentence was excessive and ordered her release after she served 10 months in prison.

Rosemary was jailed a week after the HIV Prevention and Control Act was passed by parliament. The problematic provisions in the law are currently being challenged as unconstitutional.

Rosemary was supported at the time by several advocacy and human rights organisations including the International Community of Women Living with HIV, Eastern Africa (ICWEA), Uganda Network on Law, Ethics and HIV/AIDS (UGANET), The National Forum of People Living with HIV in Uganda (NAFOPHANU) and AIDS-Free World. 

Following her release, in a meeting arranged by AIDS-Free World, media editors finally heard her side of the story and apologised to her. ICWEA continued to support Rosemary following her release, and remained in touch until her death.

Rosemary at AIDS 2016. Photo: ABC Radio

In 2017, Rosemary wrote about her experiences for the International AIDS Society, of which she was member.

This experience has totally changed my life. My self-esteem is gone and this has tarnished more than 30 years in the nursing profession, which I loved so much. I still struggle to overcome that fateful day when I woke up in the morning to go and save lives, only to be beaten down by the world.

I now know first-hand that stigma, especially among healthcare workers, is real. I’ve lost everything. I had a job, I was the breadwinner for my family, and I belonged to a community. I would give anything to be able to go back to my old self. I still need support to regain my strength, start generating an income again, and feed my family.

It is my hope that by telling my story it will show the real struggle we face against stigma and criminalisation. I saw it all, I faced it all, and I don’t want anybody else to go through it. Together, we need to fight for others who are experiencing these acts of injustice.

Report: End HIV criminalisation to address LGBT+ inequities

A new report published by the Global Equality Caucus examines what elected officials can do to ensure LGBT+ people receive equitable access to HIV healthcare.

The report titled Breaking barriers in HIV: Action for legislators to address LGBT+ inequities, includes ten recommendations for legislators and others to take forward, including repealing or modernising outdated HIV criminalisation laws, and doing more to safeguard health data privacy.

The report notes that HIV criminalisation laws are “out of step with modern scientific understanding and perpetuate outdated HIV stigmas.” Removing such laws would help to tackle prejudice and refocus HIV as a public health crisis.

Also relevant to our ongoing work on molecular HIV surveillance, the report further recommends that where data is collected, anonymity should always be assured, and “this applies to HIV testing, immigration status, or whatever other circumstances that may place LGBT+ people in danger should their health data be shared with other government authorities.”

Parliamentarians have a responsibility to ensure government departments respect the privacy of citizens and that health data is not being shared with agencies that could present additional barriers to the lives of LGBT+ people, such as immigration authorities or justice departments.

September 14 is Sex Worker Pride!

HJN stands in solidarity with sex workers and asks everyone to support the upcoming Sex Worker Pride Day (September 14) that aims to increase the visibility of sex workers and their activism.

Sex Worker Pride is an opportunity to celebrate and share stories of sex workers’ self-determination and the achievements of the sex worker rights movement, according to the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP) which began the day in 2019. NSWP upholds the voice of sex workers globally and connects regional networks advocating for the rights of female, male, and transgender sex workers.

NSWP states that Sex Worker Pride “extends to all marginalised by criminalisation, discrimination, and stigma across the sex worker movement and celebrates the diversity within our community during International Sex Worker Pride.”

Edwin J Bernard, HJN’s Executive Director says: “We stand in solidarity with all sex workers. Sex work is work. We oppose all forms of criminalisation and other legal oppression of sex work, including sex workers, clients, third parties, families, partners, and friends.”

Sex Worker Pride is one of four international sex worker rights days observed every year: 3rd March (International Sex Workers Rights Day), 2nd June (International Sex Workers Day), and 17th December (International Day to end violence against sex workers)

To show solidarity, please join the conversation and organising on social media using the hashtag #SexWorkerPride.

Uganda to re-consider problematic HIV law provisions

After five years of waiting, the Constitutional Court of Uganda has finally begun to hear a landmark case challenging the overly broad and draconian provisions of the HIV and AIDS Prevention and Control Act of 2014.

Constitutional Court Judge Christopher Izama Madrama has instructed the Attorney General of the Government of Uganda to submit a formal reply to the HIV Constitutional Petition No. 4 of 2016, after it came up for mention in the Court on August 12th, 2021.

The petition, by a coalition of HIV, human rights, and LGBTQ organisations, seeks for the removal of three problematic clauses in the HIV Prevention and Control Act which was passed on May 13, 2014 by the Ugandan Parliament.

The Act allows for stringent punishments for the vague ‘crimes’ of attempted and intentional HIV transmission. The other problematic provisions in the Act are mandatory HIV testing for pregnant women and their partners and allowing medical providers to disclose a patient’s HIV status to others without consent.

The Act’s problematic provisions have been known to have been used in a broad range of circumstances, including the arrest, conviction, and acquittal of a nurse wrongfully convicted of injecting a baby with HIV-infected blood and the charging of two different women for exposing an infant to HIV via breastfeeding.

This is the one of three pieces of good news from Uganda this week.

Earlier this year, HJN joined other civil society and human rights organisations in condemning the passage of Uganda’s Sexual Offences Bill which would have negatively impacted sex workers, the LGBTQ communities, and people living with HIV.

The Bill defined rape as ‘misrepresentation’, running the very real risk of being interpreted by the criminal legal system as HIV status non-disclosure. If the accused was found to be living with HIV, this would have resulted in the death penalty.

However, last week it was reported that President Museveni declined to sign the Bill into law, saying many provisions are redundant and already provided for in other laws.

In addition, last week Uganda’s Constitutional Court scrapped a controversial anti-pornography law whose provisions included a ban on women wearing miniskirts in public saying the law was “inconsistent with or in contravention of the constitution of the Republic of Uganda.”

Learn how to challenge HIV criminalisation in Africa

Activists and advocates in East and Southern Africa are encouraged to register and participate in a free moderated online course on HIV criminalisation.

If you work with civil society organisations based in Angola, Botswana, Comoros, Democratic Republic of Congo, Eswatini, Lesotho, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Seychelles, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, then this course is for you.

Organised by HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE partner, the AIDS and Rights Alliance for Southern Africa (ARASA), the aim of the online course is to increase awareness of the harmful impacts of policies that criminalise people living with HIV and learn how to strengthen advocacy in this area.

The course will start on 13 September 2021 and end on 8 October 2021.

You can apply for the course here.

All applications must be received by no later than the close of business on 30 August 2021.

Successful applicants will be notified by 2 September 2021.

For any questions, please write to Bruce Tushabe at bruce[at]arasa[dot]info and copy communications[at]arasa[dot]info.

To learn more about HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE, the global movement to end HIV criminalisation, please visit https://www.hivjusticeworldwide.org/en/

Illinois fully repeals its HIV criminalisation law

This week, the Governor of the US state of Illinois signed a bill that fully repeals its HIV criminalisation law, becoming only the second US state ever to do so.

Illinois’ HIV-specific criminal law was first enacted in 1989, and then “modernized” in 2012. An in-depth investigational analysis examining the history of the law and how it has been applied, published in June by Injustice Watch and the Chicago Reader, found that the law had been used at least 80 times since 1989.

Even after the law was amended in 2012 to include “intent to transmit” as an element of the ‘crime’, it appears to have been (ab)used in 22 criminal cases over the past nine years.

That’s why the Illinois HIV Action Alliance was formed in 2019 with the lofty goal of completely repealing the law. This coalition of more than 25 state and national organisations  – including our HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE partners, Positive Women’s Network-USA and the Sero Project – undertook a huge amount of awareness, education, and outreach.

Read this excellent article published by The Body in June to learn exactly what they did, and how.

Key to their surprisingly rapid success were two political champions, State Senator Robert Peters, and State Representative Carol Ammons.

“Illinois’ HIV criminalisation law was rooted in fear and racial biases,” Senator Peters noted in an Illinois HIV Action Alliance press release. “It was used to abuse people in our state, targeting people living with HIV and disproportionately affecting LGBTQ+ people, women, and Black and Brown communities.”

“Not a single study throughout the country shows HIV criminalisation has reduced HIV transmission in any jurisdiction where it exists,” added Representative Ammons. “It was far past time to get rid of this harmful law, and we thank Governor Pritzker for repealing it once and for all.”

Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker’s Facebook page live-streamed the bill signing event, held at the LGBTQ Center on Halsted in Chicago’s ‘Boystown’ on Wednesday. The repeal of the HIV criminalisation law was part of a package of legislation that also included measures to make it easier for couples to receive marriage certificates with gender-neutral language, and to get new certificates if one or both legally change their names subsequent to the initial document being issued.

At the signing, Governor Pritzker called HIV criminalisation laws archaic: “They don’t decrease infection rates, but they do increase stigma,” he said. “It’s high time we treat HIV as we do other treatable transmissible diseases.”

The law’s repeal was effective immediately on signing, but the advocacy doesn’t stop there.

First, the bill does not expunge the records of those who’ve already been prosecuted under the original or updated law.

And second, the first US state to repeal its HIV criminalisation law was Texas, in 1994. However, since then, there have been many unjust prosecutions under general laws, including that of a homeless man whose saliva was considered to be a ‘deadly weapon’ when he spit on a policeman who was arrested him for vagrancy, resulting in a 35 year prison sentence.

Consequently, advocacy is still required to ensure that police and prosecutors implement guidance to limit the overly broad and unjust use of other kinds of criminal laws when dealing with HIV-related cases.

Watch a special 4-minute 30-second edit, produced by HJN, of the bill signing ceremony that features Timothy Jackson of AIDS Foundation Chicago, who led the Illinois HIV Action Alliance, along with Senator Peters, Representative Ammons, and Governor Pritzker.

WATCH HIV Justice Live! (Ep 4): How to advocate for prosecutorial guidance for HIV-related cases

The fourth episode of HIV Justice Network’s web show, HIV Justice Live! that streamed live on July 14 is now available to watch on YouTube.  The episode, which our colleagues at the HIV Legal Network called a master class in advocacy” discussed the newly launched UNDP’s Guidance for Prosecutors on HIV-related criminal cases and provided insights into how to work with prosecutorial authorities so that they have a clear understanding of how to – and more importantly how not to – use HIV criminalisation laws.

Guidance like this is a good example of a ‘harm reduction’ approach if you can’t change or repeal HIV criminalisation laws, and adopting such guidance can result in fewer miscarriages of justice, as well as improve the criminal legal system’s understand of, and approach to, people living with HIV.  Once implemented it’s also a good way of holding prosecutors to account.

The Guidance was developed for UNDP by our HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE colleagues, Richard Elliott and Cécile Kazatchkine of the HIV Legal Network. The process, which took two years, involved multiple consultations. Several other colleagues, including HJN’s Executive Director Edwin J Bernard, HJN Supervisory Board member Lisa Power, and HJN Global Advisory Panel member Edwin Cameron were part of the Project Advisory Committee.

The episode, hosted by Edwin J Bernard and featuring UNDP’s Kene Esom alongside Lisa Power and Richard Elliott, also included a special edit of HJN’s documentary, Doing HIV Justice, which demystifies the process of how civil society worked with the Crown Prosecution Service of England and Wales to create the world’s first policy and guidance for prosecuting the reckless or intentional transmission of sexual infection.

The full-length, 30-minute version of this documentary is now available as part of a YouTube playlist that also features two other educational and informative videos: an introduction by the CPS’s Arwel Jones with some useful tips about how to engage with prosecutors, and a workshop that took place after the world premiere screening in Berlin, featuring Lisa Power and Catherine Murphy (who helped advocate for the implementation of guidance in England & Wales, and Scotland, respectively) as well as former UNAIDS Senior Human Rights and Law Adviser, Susan Timberlake.

HJN proudly joins the Support.Don’t Punish campaign

The HIV Justice Network is a proud supporter of the Support. Don’t Punish campaign now in its ninth year. Tomorrow, Saturday 26 June, is the campaign’s yearly high point, the Global Day of Action.

According to the campaign’s website, Support.Don’t Punish is a global grassroots-centred initiative in support of harm reduction and drug policies that prioritise public health and human rights. The campaign seeks to put harm reduction on the political agenda by strengthening the mobilisation capacity of communities targeted by the “war on drugs” and their allies, opening dialogue with policy makers, and raising awareness among the media and the public.

The theme for this year’s Global Day of Action is “Undoing the ‘war’, building the future that our communities have always deserved”. The date, 26th June is symbolic as it is used by most governments to commemorate the International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking to highlight their so-called ‘achievements’ in “the war on drugs.”

The Support. Don’t Punish campaign aligns with the following key messages:

  • The drug control system is broken and in need of reform.
  • People who use drugs should no longer be criminalised.
  • People involved in the drug trade should not face harsh or disproportionate punishments, where retained.
  • The death penalty should never be imposed for drug offences.
  • Drug policy should focus on health, well-being, and harm reduction.
  • Drug policy budgets need rebalancing to ensure health and harm reduction-based responses are adequately financed.

Last year, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the Global Day of Action saw 288 events in 239 participating cities in 90 countries. The activities organised were incredibly varied and involved over 150 community representatives. In twelve of the regions, networks of people who use drugs were joined by initiatives from convergent movements (including people living with HIV, sex workers, and service providers), strengthening a solidarity block against criminalisation.

This year, we urge you to join the Support.Don’t Punish Global Day of Action. Visit their homepage to check out where activities are taking place near you, and use these resources to amplify the campaign’s messages on social media, including on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

A landmark week for HIV criminalisation

This past week has seen a huge amount of activity related to HIV and, specifically, HIV criminalisation.

Illinois is about to become only the second US state ever to completely repeal its HIV criminalisation law which has been on the books since 1989.

Meanwhile, Nevada has modernised its HIV criminalisation law, and in Michigan a county prosecutor has ordered a review of all prosecutions brought under the state’s law before it was modernised in 2019.

All of these successes were celebrated at the HIV is not a Crime Training Academy (HINAC4) that took place virtually last week and helped galvanise activists working for HIV, racial and gender justice across the US, even as there was disappointment that the High-Level Meeting on HIV/AIDS, which took place at the same time, ended up adopting a joint Political Declaration that was lacking in global consensus, with both watered-down language on human rights and some key issues completely missing.

HIV criminalisation survivor Kerry Thomas, currently incarcerated in Idaho, speaking from prison at HINAC4. Although Kerry has been able to present by phone at previous international events, this is the first time anyone has been able to both see and hear Kerry.

Despite back and forth among the countries, with opposition from Russia, Belarus, Nicaragua, and the Syrian Arab Republic to the final draft’s progressive language, such as naming ‘key populations’, the Declaration did include language on HIV criminalisation as part of the 10-10-10 targets on societal enablers calling for member states to end all inequalities faced by people living with HIV, key and other priority populations by 2025.

Specifically, the Declaration “express[es] deep concern about stigma, discrimination, violence, and restrictive and discriminatory laws and practices that target people living with, at risk of and affected by HIV – including for non-disclosure, exposure, and transmission of HIV…” and “commit[s] to eliminating HIV-related stigma and discrimination, and to respecting, protecting and fulfilling the human rights of people living with, at risk of and affected by HIV…by creating an enabling legal environment by reviewing and reforming, as needed, restrictive legal and policy frameworks including discriminatory laws and practices that create barriers or reinforce stigma and discrimination such as … laws related to HIV non-disclosure, exposure, and transmission.”

Still, even as we celebrate some of these progressive commitments, much work needs to be done. Advocates and organisations have voiced their concerns that the watered-down Declaration may not fully commit countries to take action.