AIDS 2016: Discriminatory laws and policies hinder access to HIV prevention, treatment, and care for the populations most at risk of HIV

At the 21st International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2016) in Durban, researchers and community representatives discussed the impact of discriminatory laws and policies in many parts of the world that hinder access to HIV prevention, treatment, and care for the populations most at risk of HIV infection — men who have sex with men, transgender people, sex workers, people who inject drugs, and prisoners.

The latest data from UNAIDS show that these vulnerable populations account for more than one-third of all new HIV infections globally. Compared to the general population: transgender people are 49 times more likely to be living with HIV; men who have sex with men and people who inject drugs are each 24 times more likely to become infected with HIV; sex workers are 10 times more likely to become infected; and prisoners are five times more likely to be living with HIV.

“We will not end AIDS without addressing the needs of the most vulnerable individuals and communities, yet far too many are currently being left behind,” said Chris Beyrer, AIDS 2016 International Chair and President of the International AIDS Society. “Protecting human rights is not just a moral issue, it is a scientific issue. Research presented at this conference will demonstrate that exclusion and discrimination help fuel the spread of HIV.”

Beyrer recently served on a special Johns Hopkins University-Lancet Commission on Drug Policy and Health. He was lead author of the Commission’s final report, published in March 2016 in advance of the UN Special Session on the World Drug Problem. The report concluded in part that drug laws intended to protect have instead contributed to disease transmission, discrimination, lethal violence, and forced displacement, and have undermined people’s right to health.

“Dealing effectively with HIV will require our communities and societies to break down longstanding prejudice, hatred, and ignorance,” said Justice Edwin Cameron of the Constitutional Court of South Africa. “Only when scientific advances are matched by social and cultural progress can this epidemic truly be contained.”

Originally published in Edge Media Network

AIDS 2016: The criminalization of vulnerable populations fuels the HIV epidemic in many countries

THE criminalization of same-sex relationships and prostitution in most parts of the continent has been cited as the major cause of the recurrence of HIV/AIDS in recent years.

After a period of decline, new HIV infections among adults across the globe are on the rise again, it has emerged at the International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa.

South Africa is the only African country legalise same-sex unions.

According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), HIV remains stubbornly high among men who have intercourse with men, sex workers, people who use drugs, and transgender women.

Groups like these, which are criminalized in many places, account for more than one-third of new HIV infections worldwide.

HRW Senior Researcher of Health and Human Rights, Megan McLemore, said criminalization restricted access to health care, forcing those most vulnerable to HIV to the margins of society.

“For the sake of populations most vulnerable to HIV, criminal laws need to be reformed, and fast. There is no time to waste,” said McLemore.

Meanwhile, a special issue of the Lancet medical journal released at the Durban conference described prisoners as the most neglected and vulnerable of all populations in the global HIV/AIDS response.

 “Prison health care is abysmal in many parts of the world, and HIV prevention and treatment inside some jails is limited or nonexistent,” said McLemore.

Human Rights Watch has documented government failure to provide HIV prevention and treatment programs to prisoners, most recently in Louisiana parish jails.

Michel Sidibe, executive director at UNAIDS, said nearly 2 million people become HIV-positive every year.

Originally published in Caj News

AIDS 2016: HIV criminalisation is on the rise, report presenters at Beyond Blame preconference

HIV criminalisation on the rise, especially in sub-Saharan Africa

Lesley Odendal

Globally, 72 countries have adopted laws that specifically allow for HIV criminalisation, either because the law is specific to HIV, or because it names HIV as one (or more) of the diseases covered by a broader law. This total increases to 101 jurisdictions when the HIV criminalisation laws in 30 of the states that make up the United States are counted individually.

Prosecutions for HIV non-disclosure, potential or perceived exposure and/or unintentional transmission have now been reported in 61 countries.  Of the 61 countries, 26 countries applied HIV criminalisation laws and 32 applied general criminal or public-health related laws, according to HIV Justice Worldwide, an international partnership of organizations, made up of the AIDS and Rights Alliance for Southern Africa (ARASA), the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, the Global Network of People Living with HIV, the HIV Justice Network, the International Community of Women Living with HIV, the Positive Women’s Network USA and the Sero Project. The findings were presented at the Beyond Blame preconference held at the 21st International AIDS Conference, in Durban, South Africa, this week.

HIV criminalisation refers to the unjust application of criminal law to people living with HIV, based on their HIV status, either through the use of HIV-specific criminal statutes or by applying general criminal laws that allow for the prosecution of unintentional HIV transmission, potential or perceived exposure to HIV – even where HIV is not transmitted – and/or the non-disclosure of known HIV-positive status.

“HIV criminalisation is profoundly bad policy. It is based on fear and outdated understanding of HIV risk and harm and magnifies stigma and discrimination towards people living with HIV,” said Justice Edwin Cameron, judge of the South Africa Constitutional Court.

These laws are not guided by the scientific and medical evidence relating to the transmission mechanisms of HIV, fail to uphold the principles of legal and judicial fairness (such as foreseeability, intent, causality and proof) and directly infringe the human rights of those involved in these cases.

“The evidence that criminalisation as a public health strategy does not work is too plain to contest. It is our responsibility to end it”, said Hon. Patrick Herminie, Speaker of the National Assembly of Seychelles.

To date, thirty countries in sub-Saharan Africa have passed laws criminalising HIV transmission or exposure in some form, including Botswana, Cote d’Ivoire, Nigeria and Uganda, which passed laws in the last year. There has also been a rise in reported prosecutions in sub-Saharan Africa since 2015, in Botswana, South Africa, Uganda and especially Zimbabwe.

An additional workshop at the conference explored the common roots of criminalisation. Panelists identified the key reasons for these misused and often overly-broad interpretations of criminal laws as being due to fear, moral panic, containment of the HIV epidemic and state-sponsored control of bodily autonomy, including sexual conduct and stigma to impose sanctions on those viewed as not being ‘fit and worthy’ of enjoying the protectionist mandate of these laws.

Pervasive gender inequality, power dynamics, and ‘victim-status’ were acknowledged as preventing women from accessing justice to the same extent as men. It was recommended that a feminist framework is used as a strategy to address the criminalisation of HIV as female and transgender sex workers, migrants, indigenous and black women suffer the most from these HIV-specific laws.

Rosemary Namiburu, an ex-nurse from Uganda, who was imprisoned after she was prosecuted for not revealing her HIV status to her partner is an example of this: “My life will not be the same after facing HIV criminalisation. My 30 years of working as a nurse and dedicated to saving lives have been erased. I have spent almost a year in prison and have been branded as a criminal and a killer, even though I have harmed no one.”

Originally published in

Challenging HIV Criminalisation @ AIDS 2016, Durban

(29 min, HJN, South Africa, 2016)

On 17 July 2016, approximately 150 advocates, activists, researchers, and community leaders met in Durban, South Africa, for Beyond Blame: Challenging HIV Criminalisation – a full-day pre-conference meeting preceding the 21st International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2016) to discuss progress on the global effort to combat the unjust use of the criminal law against people living with HIV.

Attendees at the convening hailed from at least 36 countries on six continents (Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, Oceania, and South America).

Beyond Blame was convened by HIV Justice Worldwide, an initiative made up of global, regional, and national civil society organisations – most of them led by people living with HIV – who are working together to build a worldwide movement to end HIV criminalisation.

The meeting was opened by the Honourable Dr Patrick Herminie, Speaker of Parliament of the Seychelles, and closed by Justice Edwin Cameron, both of whom gave powerful, inspiring speeches. In between the two addresses, moderated panels and more intimate, focused breakout sessions catalysed passionate and illuminating conversations amongst dedicated, knowledgeable advocates

France: Grindr proposed HIV filter raises fear it could be used as a new tool to target and criminalize HIV

English version (Défilez plus bas pour la version française)

Filtering for HIV status on Grindr? A proposal that is going down badly.

A questionnaire sent by the dating app for gay men to some of its users raises fear of stigmatising HIV-positive men.

Being able to search men’s profiles based on their HIV status is the idea submitted by Grindr, the most famous gay dating geo applications in a questionnaire sent out recently to some of its 10.5 million users.

Vincent received the questionnaire when connecting to the App and completed it, although he found some of the questions “very troubling.” They all revolve around HIV: information on the current HIV status of users, their sexual practices, proposal to send reminders to encourage regular screening … But among them one question in particular creates controversy:

“How would you react if Grindr allowed you to filter the men you see based on their HIV status? ”

“Not only does it send a very bad signal about the perception of HIV, but it does not create a sense of real security, it is a false protection,” notes Mathieu Brancourt, editor of AIDES.

“Grindr would not be able to verify the information”

He pointed out this questionnaire on Twitter after denunciation by several US users (including bloggers Josh Robbins and David Myles). He added: “It would be based on declarative statement, Grindr could not verify it. ”

What credibility could we give it in reality, knowing that only one American out of 10 knows that he is HIV-positive and that “the bulk of the contamination occurs in people who do not know their status,”highlights Rémi, the Leader of the commission for serophobia LGBTphobia-Act-Up Paris?

Mathieu Brancourt questions the purpose and the risks involved, particularly with regard to the criminalisation of HIV transmission, “This information could for example be exploited legally in the context of situations in which a man claiming to be seronegative transmit HIV to someone else. ”

The app designer themselves assume responsibility for the “uncomfortable questions”

Questioned by Rue89, a representative of the company ensures that it seeks only to “promote education”:

“We observed a significant increase in user profiles openly discussing their HIV status and the dates of their tests.

Since it is not part of our profile options to date, we are investigating with users to determine both if they wish to share this information, and how to avoid stigmatisation and provide appropriate support. Sometimes this involves asking awkward questions. ”

We have however received no confirmation as to the actual implementation of the option and the launch date if applicable.

“It’s stigmatizing”

Among the users we interviewed, Grindr’s survey is going down badly. “With regard to the filter, I am vehemently against it. It’s conter-productive and discriminatory. One population is de facto dismissed, “says Hugo, 20 years old.

“The idea of ​​being filtered through that test bothers me a lot. I’m already not very comfortable with the filters on these applications in general, here it goes much too far for me, “added Donald, 25 years old.

Julien (his name has been changed on request), 18 and HIV negative, “it is stigmatizing. Just because the app caters to gay does not mean they should indicate whether they have AIDS or not. ” However he admits: “If the function existed, I would tend to filter out the positive users.”

“People ask me if I’m clean ‘

Fred, 48, HIV-positive since 1986 and non-infectious, does not try to hide his HIV status:

“I say when I’m asked. It regularly happens that the boys cut the conversation short. They are idiots who are totally ignorant about HIV. ”

Beyond the problematic issue of filtering by HIV status, the Grindr survey has the merit of highlighting how HIV is still a taboo and a misunderstood subject.

“I never ask for the HIV status of the men I meet,” says Vincent, HIV-negative, 42, “but many people ask me if “I am clean “, which in reality means nothing.

I think this information should be shared especially if you have borderline practices, not always using condoms and such. But by having safer sex consistently, the issue is not important for me. ”

Fred only sleeps with positive men

Although he finds the idea of a filter totally unacceptable, Fred acknowledges that he prefers to sleep with HIV-positive men like him.

Primarily because it does not want to deal with the fear and thoughts of those who think he is infectious even though his viral load is undetectable, but also because he knows that he can have sex without a condom safely:

“People with HIV on treatment have blood tests every three months. It’s safer for my health and it makes me more comfortable with my sexuality. ”

In terms of prevention, dating applications – regularly accused of playing a part in the increase of STDs and STIs -have an important role to play among a population particularly affected by the epidemic. “Especially as practices without a condom are spreading,” notes Vincent. “Not a day goes by without someone proposing it to me. ”


“Barebacking”, the practice of having unprotected sex voluntarily, is commonly suggested on apps. In 2014, men who have sex with men represented 42% of cases of HIV diagnoses in France.

“Today, an HIV-positive person who is on treatment is not infectious, this is the point that should be insisted upon with users,” raises Rémi of Act-Up Paris.

He educates users on dating apps sites via profiles created for the association, like Etienne Fouquay, in charge of New health strategies and digital activism for AIDES. For him, “this is obviously the place to be.”

He explains : “We offer discussions or individual interviews to users. With the appreciation of geolocation (on Grindr for example), we can promote screening activities we lead with mobile vans in the area. ”

On Hornet, the date of the last screening

AIDES volunteers however work more or less underground and do not benefit from the official support of apps.

“It even happens that users report us and Grindr regularly deletes profiles. Each time, it is like an obstacle course. ”

AIDES however was able to negotiate the opening of popups – for which they pay – on the app, including prevention information.

But all the brands do not have the same policy, added Etienne Fouquay “Hornet and Scruff have a much more proactive approach and want us to work together. ”

On Hornet, several users told us, it is for example possible to display the date of the last screening. This is what Donald does: “I mention it to encourage people who visit my profile to do it regularly. It is unfortunately not possible to indicate the last testing date without disclosing one’s HIV status, so I check that I am HIV negative. ”

Testing kits

“It seems to me that indicating one’s status publicly on these apps could be a good thing. This may eventually allow to demystify the thing while being aware of the duty to protect oneself. However, it can also act as a deterrent. So giving it publicly yes, provided that it is a choice, “says Hugo meanwhile.

Ultimately, the ideal for AIDES would be to be able to have official profiles for the organisation on apps. “We will also send home testing kits to people via apps,” explained Stephen Fouquay.

The latter option has already been set up with Grindr in Los Angeles. Through the application, 56 African-American and Hispanic men, the populations most affected by HIV, have recently been able to receive screening kits. Among them, 69% had not been tested in the past six months. So rather than a filter by HIV status, when will this type of initiative arrive in France?

Filtrer les séropositifs sur Grindr ? La proposition qui passe mal

Un questionnaire envoyé par l’appli de rencontres gay à certains de ses utilisateurs laisse craindre une stigmatisation des hommes séropositifs.

Pouvoir rechercher des profils d’hommes en fonction de leur statut sérologique lié au VIH. C’est l’idée soumise par Grindr, la plus connue des applications de rencontres gays géolocalisées, dans un questionnaire envoyé ces derniers jours à certains de ses 10,5 millions d’utilisateurs.

Vincent l’a reçu en se connectant à l’appli et l’a rempli, bien qu’il ait trouvé certaines questions «  très gênantes  ». Celles-ci tournent toutes autour du VIH  : renseignements sur l’actuel statut sérologique des usagers, sur leurs pratiques sexuelles, proposition d’envoyer des rappels pour inciter à des dépistages réguliers… Mais parmi elles, une en particulier crée la polémique  :

«  Comment réagirais-tu si Grindr t’autorisais à filtrer les hommes que tu vois en fonction de leur statut sérologique  ?  »

«  Non seulement ça envoie un très mauvais signal concernant la perception des séropositifs, mais ça n’instaure pas un sentiment de sécurité réel, c’est une fausse protection  », fait remarquer Mathieu Brancourt, rédacteur pour l’association de lutte contre le Sida Aides.

« Grindr ne pourrait pas le vérifier »

Il a signalé ce questionnaire sur Twitter après sa dénonciation par plusieurs utilisateurs américains (dont les blogueurs Josh Robbins et David Myles). Il ajoute  : «  Ce ne serait basé que sur du déclaratif, Grindr ne pourrait pas le vérifier.  »

Quel crédit pourrait-on en effet y accorder, sachant par ailleurs qu’un Américain sur dix ignore qu’il est séropositif et que «  le gros des contaminations se fait chez des personnes qui ne connaissent pas leur statut sérologique  », comme le souligne Rémi, responsable de la commission LGBTphobie-sérophobie d’Act-Up Paris  ?

Mathieu Brancourt s’interroge sur le but recherché et les risques encourus, notamment au regard de la pénalisation de la transmission du VIH  : «  Ces informations pourraient par exemple être exploitées juridiquement dans le cadre de situations où un homme se déclarant séronégatif transmettrait le VIH à quelqu’un d’autre.  »

L’appli assume ses « questions gênantes »

Interrogée par Rue89, une représentante de l’entreprise assure que cette dernière ne cherche qu’à «  favoriser l’éducation  » :

«  Nous avons observé une augmentation significative de profils d’utilisateurs discutant ouvertement de leur statut VIH et des dates de leurs tests.

Etant donné que cela ne fait pas partie de nos options de profils à ce jour, nous enquêtons auprès des usagers pour déterminer à la fois s’ils désirent partager cette information, et les moyens d’éviter la stigmatisation et de fournir un support approprié. Parfois, cela implique de poser des questions gênantes.  »

Nous n’avons en revanche pas obtenu de confirmation quant à la mise en place effective de l’option et à la date de lancement le cas échéant.

« C’est stigmatisant »

Chez les utilisateurs que nous avons interrogés, le questionnaire de Grindr passe mal. «  S’agissant du filtre, je suis farouchement contre. C’est contre-productif et discriminant. On écarte de facto une population  », commente Hugo, 20 ans.

«  L’idée d’être filtré sur ce critère me dérange beaucoup. Je ne suis déjà pas très à l’aise avec les filtres sur ces applications en général, ici ça va beaucoup trop loin pour moi  », ajoute quant à lui Donald, 25 ans.

Pour Julien (son prénom a été changé à sa demande), 18 ans et séronégatif, «  c’est stigmatisant. Ce n’est pas parce que l’appli s’adresse aux gays qu’ils doivent indiquer s’ils ont le Sida ou pas  ». Il reconnaît néanmoins  : «  Si la fonction existait, j’aurais tendance à filtrer pour enlever les utilisateurs positifs  ».

« On me demande si je suis clean »

Fred, 48 ans, séropositif depuis 1986 et non-contaminant, ne cherche pas à cacher son statut sérologique  :

«  Je le dis quand on me le demande. Il arrive régulièrement que des garçons coupent court à la conversation. Ce sont des crétins qui ont une méconnaissance totale du VIH. »

Car au-delà de la question problématique d’un filtre par statut sérologique, l’enquête de Grindr a le mérite de mettre en lumière à quel point le VIH est encore un sujet tabou et méconnu.

«  Je ne pose jamais la question du statut sérologique aux hommes que je rencontre », confie Vincent, séronégatif de 42 ans, « mais nombreux sont ceux qui me demandent si je suis “clean”, ce qui, au fond, ne veut rien dire.

J’estime que c’est une information à partager surtout si on a des pratiques borderline, avec une rupture de capote ou autre. Mais en ayant des rapports systématiquement protégés, cette question n’a pas d’importance pour moi. »

Fred ne couche qu’avec des séropositifs

Bien qu’il trouve l’évocation d’un filtre totalement inacceptable, Fred reconnaît qu’il préfère ne coucher qu’avec des hommes séropositifs, comme lui.

Avant tout parce qu’il ne veut pas s’infliger les peurs et réflexions de ceux qui le pensent contaminant alors que sa charge virale est indétectable, mais également parce qu’il sait qu’il pourra avoir des rapports sans préservatif en toute sécurité  :

«  Les séropositifs sous traitement ont des prises de sang tous les trois mois. C’est plus sûr pour ma santé et ça me met plus à l’aise avec ma sexualité. »

En matière de prévention, les applications de rencontre – régulièrement accusées de participer à l’augmentation des MST et IST – ont justement un important rôle à jouer chez un public particulièrement touché par l’épidémie. «  D’autant plus que les pratiques sans préservatif se généralisent  », relève Vincent. «  Il ne se passe pas une journée sans que l’on m’en propose. »


On parle notamment de «  barebacking  », cette pratique qui consiste à avoir des relations sexuelles volontairement non protégées, couramment suggérées sur les applis. En 2014, les hommes ayant des rapports sexuels avec des hommes représentaient 42% des cas de découvertes de séropositivité en France.

«  Aujourd’hui, une personne séropositive qui est traitée n’est pas contaminante, c’est sur ça qu’il faudrait insister auprès des usagers  », soulève Rémi d’Act-Up Paris.

Il sensibilise les usagers de sites et applis de rencontre via des profils créés pour l’association, tout comme Etienne Fouquay, chargé de mission Nouvelles stratégies de santé et actions numériques à Aides. Pour lui, «  c’est évidemment là qu’il faut agir  ». Il explique  :

«  Nous proposons des discussions ou des entretiens individuels aux utilisateurs. Avec la plus-value de la géolocalisation (sur Grindr par exemple), nous pouvons promouvoir des actions de dépistage que nous menons dans des camions aux alentours. »

Sur Hornet, la date du dernier dépistage

Les bénévoles de Aides interviennent néanmoins dans une certaine clandestinité et ne bénéficient pas de l’appui officiel des applications.

«  Il arrive même que des usagers nous signalent et que Grindr supprime régulièrement nos profils. A chaque fois, c’est un parcours du combattant. »

Aides a toutefois pu négocier l’ouverture de fenêtres pop-up – payantes – sur l’application, comprenant des informations de prévention.

Mais toutes les marques n’ont pas la même politique, ajoute Etienne Fouquay  : «  Hornet et Scruff ont des démarches beaucoup plus volontaristes et veulent que l’on travaille ensemble. »

Sur Hornet, nous font remarquer plusieurs utilisateurs, il est par exemple possible d’afficher la date de son dernier dépistage. C’est ce que fait Donald :

«  Je l’indique pour inciter les gens qui visitent mon profil à le faire régulièrement. Il n’est hélas pas possible d’indiquer la dernière date sans dévoiler son statut sérologique, donc je coche que je suis bien séronégatif. »

Kits de dépistage

«  Il me semble que donner publiquement son statut sérologique sur ces applications peut être une bonne chose. Cela peut éventuellement permettre de désacraliser la chose tout en ayant conscience de l’obligation de se protéger. Pour autant, cela peut aussi agir comme un effet dissuasif. Donc le donner publiquement oui, à condition que cela soit un choix  », tranche quant à lui Hugo.

À terme, l’idéal pour Aides serait de bénéficier de profils associatifs officiels sur les applications. «  Nous allons également envoyer des kits de dépistage au domicile des personnes via les applications  », explique Etienne Fouquay.

Cette dernière option a d’ores et déjà été mise en place avec Grindr à Los Angeles. Grâce à l’application, 56 hommes afro-américains et hispaniques, populations particulièrement touchées par le VIH, ont récemment pu recevoir des kits de dépistage. Parmi eux, 69% n’avaient pas été testés dans les six derniers mois. Alors, plus qu’un filtre par statut sérologique, à quand ce type d’initiative en France  ?

Originally published on rue89

US: Second HIV is not a crime training academy creates an important intersectional shift in the US anti-HIV criminalisation movement

The second HIV Is Not a Crime Training Academy, which took place in May at the University of Alabama, Huntsville, brought together more than 300 advocates from 34 US states, as well delegations from Canada and Mexico.

Organised jointly by two of our HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE partners, the Sero Project and Positive Women’s Network–USA, the meeting was a unique opportunity for the people most affected by HIV criminalisation to take centre stage and have their voices be heard.

As Mark S King’s blog post highlighted in his blog and video produced the week following the meeting:

The intersections of race, gender, and sexuality were given as much weight as strategy sessions on working with legislators and lawyers, and the program repeatedly drove home the fact that criminalizing behaviors related to specific groups of people is as American as apple pie. Plenary speakers included advocates for women (including transgender women), current and former sex workers, immigration reform and drug legalization advocates, and, most powerfully, people who have been prosecuted under HIV criminalization statutes.

The theme of intersectionality and what it means for HIV criminalisation advocacy was further explored in this thoughtful analysis from Olivia Ford at The

At the first HIV Is Not a Crime gathering in Grinnell, Iowa, in 2014, the sessions focused largely on unpacking the process of mounting a legislative campaign. Huntsville attendees also received training on important skills such as using data and collaborating with attorneys. The dominant theme, however, was the mandate to understand and combat HIV criminalization as a component of the system of over-policing and mass incarceration that disproportionately and unjustly impacts black people, queer folks, immigrants, drug users, sex workers, transgender individuals and those living with and without HIV at the intersections of this constellation of experiences.

The meeting was also an opportunity to celebrate the recent modernisation of Colorado’s HIV criminalisation statutes by the Colorado Mod Squad and their political allies, notably Senator Pat Steadman; and to hear from HIV criminalisation survivors and their families about what the HIV criminalisation – and the movement to end it – means for them personally.

The biggest political coup of the meeting was a welcome video from Hilary Clinton who said that if she wins the Presidential election, she will work to “reform outdated, stigmatising” HIV criminalisation laws.

Aside from those highlighted above, a number of other blog posts and articles have been produced since the meeting.  As well as a fantastic Storify compilation by PWN-USA of social media produced during the four days, these include pieces from:

In addition, the HIV Justice Network was there with our video advocacy consultant, Nicholas Feustel of georgetown media, capturing the entire event on video, and we will be releasing a film providing a detailed overview of the entire meeting, as well as lessons learned, in the next few weeks.

US/Canada: Elton John AIDS Foundation on why they support civil society organisations working to end HIV criminalisation

Zimbabwe: The persecution and prosecution of Harare model highlights reasons why HIV should not be criminalised

For the past few weeks, social and conventional media have been awash with the most heinous of headlines — “Harare model injects lover’s son with HIV.”


An outraged public bayed for her blood, denouncing the model and calling for her immediate incarceration. After an invasive HIV test, it emerged that the allegations against the model were false, and that she is just another victim of the poorly crafted section 79 of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act, which in part reads as follows;

“ Any person who

(a) Knowing that he or she is infected with HIV; or

(b) Realising that there is a real risk or possibility that he or she is infected with HIV

Intentionally does anything or permits the doing of anything which he or she knows will infect, or does anything which he or she realises involves a real risk or possibility of infecting another person with HIV, be guilty of deliberate transmission of HIV, whether or not he or she is married to that other person, and shall be liable to imprisonment for a period not exceeding twenty years.”

The wording of this provision is objectionable because:

It criminalises sexual intercourse

Under this section, any person who has had sexual intercourse can be arrested and prosecuted, as with every sexual encounter, there is a risk or possibility of infection with HIV. Scientific research shows that no one method is 100% effective in protecting against the risk of infections. Having safe sexual intercourse is, strictly speaking, irrelevant for the purposes of this provision. A dangerously wide offence has been created.

It creates conditions for false incrimination

It is currently not possible in this country to tell who was infected first. Thus, the story which carries the day is that of the person who reports to the police first. This disadvantages women, who by reason of their reproductive health needs invariably get to know their status first as antenatal care services make HIV-testing compulsory for women. The only option for women to avoid prosecution under section 79 is to avoid antenatal care services or to opt out of HIV-testing, notwithstanding the danger that these decisions present for their own health, the health of their unborn babies and the community at large.

It does not reduce the spread of HIV

There is no evidence that applying criminal law to HIV risk behaviour incapacitates, rehabilitates, or deters offenders.

It promotes fear and stigma

Prosecution under section 79 is typically accompanied by inflammatory and ill-informed media coverage and this only serves to reinforce stigma against people living with HIV.

It penalises a conjectural likelihood

In terms of section 79, one does not actually have to have infected someone with HIV for a court to find that there has been “deliberate transmission of HIV”. Where a person facing charges under this section is tested and found positive, then a court must convict them, whether or not any transmission took place!

It disproportionately affects the already marginalised

Due to the persistence of deep-rooted prejudice against groups such as commercial sex workers, there is a real possibility that criminal prosecution will disproportionately affect them, as they are easy targets for such a witch hunt.

Data and evidence collected in 15 years (1986-2001) on prosecution for HIV transmission or exposure in the United States as well as several studies conducted around Europe revealed that most of the individuals convicted for HIV transmission or exposure were in vulnerable social and economic positions, including, commercial sex workers and prisoners.

Thus, it is arguable that section 79 of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) violates section 56 of the Constitution which guarantees non-discrimination and equal protection of the law. A law that puts people at risk of prosecution and 20 years imprisonment for a crime whose elements are not sufficiently clear for them to regulate their conduct cannot be said to be in line with the protection guarantee under the Constitution. As Edwin Cameron, a Judge of the Supreme Court of Appeal of South Africa, has noted, “prosecutions for HIV transmission and exposure, and the chilling content of the enactments themselves, reinforce the idea of HIV as a shameful, disgraceful, unworthy condition.”

The persecution and prosecution of the Harare model is proof of all the reasons why HIV should not be criminalised. The general criminal law is sufficient to deal with instances where a person maliciously and deliberately infects others with HIV, and in other jurisdictions, such persons are charged with assault, or attempted murder. There is no proof that criminalising HIV transmission will achieve either criminal justice or prevents HIV transmission.

The sentiment behind section 79 is understandable — it is grounded in the belief that, given the deleterious nature of HIV, any person living with it, has a moral duty to avoid infecting others. In this instance, however, the criminal law is a blunt instrument, imprecise and heavy-handed, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake. The criminalisation of HIV transmission threatens a human rights response to HIV that empowers people to avoid infection or live successfully with HIV. As UNAIDS has noted, instead of applying criminal law to HIV transmission, governments should expand programmes which have been proven to reduce HIV transmission and strengthen and enforce laws against rape and other forms of sexual violence against women and children.

The events of the past few weeks have shown that Section 79 of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act is overly-broad, and open to abuse. It only serves to entrench stigma and discrimination, and has no place in a society ostensibly founded on recognition of the inherent dignity and worth of each human being.

l Bellinda Chinowawa and Elizabeth Mangenje are project lawyers with Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights

 Originally published in The Standard