Canada: Alison Carter explores the negative consequences of HIV Criminalisation on women living with HIV

The Politics Of Sex For Women Living With HIV

“If I have sex, I could go to jail.”

This is the reality of life for women living with HIV in Canada.

It’s a story I heard a few weeks ago from an African woman who had recently immigrated to Vancouver and is now faced with the profoundly isolating experience of being a Black HIV-positive woman in Canadian society.

This may come as a surprise to anyone unfamiliar with HIV in Canada: Women (and men) who are living with HIV are at risk of facing a criminal charge of aggravated sexual assault for not disclosing their HIV status before engaging in consensual sex, unless they have a low HIV viral load and use a condom. Beyond serving jail time, those convicted must register as a sex offender, a title usually reserved for child molesters and rapists. “That follows you around forever,” says a woman who was herself imprisoned for HIV non-disclosure.

This woman, and many others, bravely spoke out about their experiences of being treated like a criminal for living with HIV at the annual Canadian Conference on HIV/AIDS Research, held in Montréal from April 6 to 9.

The conference included a special session on the criminalization of HIV non-disclosure, which covered a broad array of issues ranging from data on the total number of charges laid, to women’s personal testimonies of feeling ‘under surveillance’, to the latest research findings on how the law is understood and experienced by thousands of women living with HIV across Canada.

Saara Greene of McMaster University, Angela Kaida of Simon Fraser University, and Marvelous Muchenje of the Canadian Coalition to Reform HIV Criminalization co-hosted the event in partnership with HIV-positive women, which brought together dozens of community leaders, scientists, lawyers, and activists from around the country.

“Some women are suffering in silence and they don’t know what the law says,” said Muchenje.

“The law assumes that sex takes place between partners of equal power,” added Greene. “And it wholly ignores what causes women not to disclose their status, including widespread stigma and violence that are both systematically targeted at women living with this disease.”

The women who have participated in their research, which involved telling stories through participatory arts-based Body Mapping, say “disclosure is not always safe or positive for women’s health and safety.” And for many, the fear of being abused, rejected, or worse jailed, is a significant barrier to even thinking about the idea of getting involved with someone.

Eighteen women have been charged for HIV non-disclosure in Canada, many of whom come from marginalized backgrounds and are survivors of sexual violence.

“Beyond the number of prosecutions, however, is the threat of prosecution,” said Kaida. “And this threat compromises both women’s interactions with healthcare providers and their sexual health.”

Kaida analyzed survey data collected from over 1000 women living with HIV in Canada, and found that for most women (65 per cent), the law affects the amount and type of information they are willing to share with providers, particularly as it relates to their sexual lives.

Kaida also found that 51 per cent of women were not having sex and of these, 78 per cent were intentionally abstinent. Women’s reasons for intentional abstinence were diverse though many (33 per cent) worried about HIV criminalization and disclosing their status to sexual partners.

“Laws criminalizing HIV non-disclosure have been defended as a means of protecting the sexual well-being of women,” Kaida said. “However, our findings show women are protecting themselves from the law by intentionally abstaining from sex.”

It goes without saying that women living with HIV shouldn’t have to live in fear of having sex. Sex is a normal part of life. It feels good. It has health benefits. And it’s a human right, one that this law violates.

The law also ignores groundbreaking new science that shows a person with HIV who is on treatment with undetectable levels of the virus in their blood has zero chance of passing HIV to their sexual partners. Put simply, Undetectable=Untransmittable.

Wedged in between science, on the one hand, and society on the other, are decades of cultural discourses of risk, danger, and stigma.

Stigma is a dangerous construct. It deters people from accessing testing and treatment. It leads to anxiety, depression, isolation, and loneliness. And it creates a social and legal environment that fosters abuse, harassment, and discrimination against women living with the condition.

In the face of a mountain of evidence of medical advances and human rights violations, many people are calling (shouting, really) for policy markers in Canada to update the laws and de-criminalize HIV. Doing so would also help to de-stigmatize sex for women living with HIV.

“The discrimination I face because of I live with HIV is ridiculous,” says Peggy Frank, an openly positive woman and researcher. “It’s a small virus that has little to do with who we are. I am a human being and I have the rights that every other human being has, and that includes sex.”

Allison Carter is a feminist epidemiologist conducting sex-positive research with women living with HIV. She is working with women on building a new online resource, called Life and Love with HIV, dedicated to building conversation and community around sexuality and relationships for women and couples with HIV around the world. Sign up to be notified when the website launches.

Published on April 10, 2017 in the Huffington Post


Mexico: Roberto Guzman on why HIV criminalisation laws do not protect women from HIV or violence and are inappropriate

Women and HIV criminalisation(Google translation – For the original Spanish version, please scroll down)

By Roberto Guzmán

Despite the fact that HIV infection has no cure, it has now become treatable and mortality has fallen. HIV has become a chronic disease with a higher quality of life and life expectancy. However, social perceptions have not significantly changed and HIV transmission and its gender-implications are still the cause of associated stigma and strong discrimination throughout the infection process and have become a major obstacle for prevention and medical care.

If a woman lives with HIV, her discrimination inhibits personalization of the risks for fear of distrust or of criticisms in her social environment, a situation that reduces the possibility of negotiating preventive measures and undermines her willingness towards her partners, by limiting a systemic diagnosis, by not wanting to share her results and her new life condition and by increasing the probability of not being able to seek treatment for its control.

Although the infection rates in this sector remains stable, women who contract HIV today continue to be ostracized, not only by their own families but also by their communities. They are expelled from their homes or rejected by their spouses to live in terror or to suffer violence, even to be deprived of life as if they were criminals.

If our Congress intended to apply a criminal law to the exposure and transmission of HIV as an outlet for this, perhaps its decree resulted from a well-intentioned desire to protect them in response to a legitimate concern for its rapid expansion. But continuing to allow society to criminalize them, does not foresee the emergence of new transmissions or reduce their vulnerability to the virus, on the contrary it would hurt them rather than help them, by having a negative impact on public health needs and the protection to their human rights. Continuing to criminalize them also does not protect them from sexual violence and rape, nor from unwanted pregnancies, on the contrary, it increases the risk of “secondary criminalization” when rape survivors infected with HIV could be persecuted for a possible exposure and transmission to their babies or their partners.

I believe that instead of responding to HIV by raising fears or laws, a human rights approach would emphasize protecting the dignity of all of them by creating conditions for free and informed taking of their health and life.



Por Roberto Guzmán

La mujer y su criminalización por VIH

Pese a que la infección del VIH no tiene cura, hoy se vuelve tratable y disminuye su mortalidad al tornarse crónica y con mayor calidad y esperanza de vida. Sin embargo, los cambios en la percepción social que aún continúan son menos significativos ya que su transmisión y sus implicaciones respecto al género son causa de un estigma asociado y motivo de una fuerte discriminación en los distintos ámbitos del proceso de la infección al volverse obstáculo importante para la prevención y su asistencia médica.

Sí una mujer vive con VIH, su discriminación inhibe la personalización que tiene frente al riesgo por miedo a generarse desconfianza o crítica en su entorno social, situación que reduce la posibilidad de que se negocien medidas preventivas y el socavar su predisposición con sus parejas, al limitar su detección sistémica al no querer compartir su resultado y nueva condición de vida y la  probabilidad de no poder buscar tratamiento para su control.

Pese a que la tasa de infección de este sector permanece estable, las mujeres que hoy contraen VIH continúan siendo condenadas a un ostracismo, no solo por sus propias familias sino por sus comunidades que las expulsan de sus casas o al ser rechazadas por sus cónyuges teniendo que vivir aterradas o sufrir violencias, incluso ser privadas de la vida como si fuesen criminales.

Si nuestro Congreso tuviera la intención de aplicar una ley criminal a la exposición y transmisión del VIH como una salida a esto, quizá su decreto resultaría un bien intencionado deseo por protegerlas como respuesta a una preocupación legítima por su rápida expansión. Pero el continuar permitiendo que la sociedad las criminalice, no prevé la aparición de nuevas transmisiones ni reduce con ello su vulnerabilidad frente al Virus, al contrario las perjudicaría más que ayudarlas, al lograr un impacto negativo en las necesidades de salud pública y en la protección a sus derechos humanos. El seguir criminalizándolas tampoco las protege de la violencia sexual y la violación, ni de los embarazos no deseados, por el contrario, aumenta el riesgo a una “criminalización secundaria” cuando las sobrevivientes de violación si fuesen infectadas por VIH pudieran verse perseguidas por una posible exposición y transmisión a sus bebes o a sus parejas.

Considero que en lugar de responder al VIH generando temor o leyes, un enfoque de derechos humanos pondría énfasis en la protección a la dignidad de todas ellas al crearse condiciones para la toma libre e informada en relación a su salud y su vida.


Canada: Toronto’s ‘Now’ weekly newspaper prominently features HIV criminalisation impact, advocacy and advocates

This week, Toronto’s weekly newspaper, ‘Now’, features four articles on HIV criminalisation and its impact in Canada.

The lead article, ‘HIV is not a crime’ is written from the point of view of an HIV-negative person who discovers a sexual partner had not disclosed to him.  It concludes:

After my experience with non-disclosure, I felt some resentment. But while researching this article, I reached out to the person who didn’t disclose to me. We talked about the assumptions we’d both made about each other. It felt good to talk and air our grievances.


I realized I’d learned something I’d never heard from doctors during any of my dozens of trips to the STI clinic, something I’d never heard from my family, my school, in the media or from the government – that you don’t need to be afraid of people living with HIV.

Screenshot 2017-01-13 09.48.27A second article, Laws criminalizing HIV are putting vulnerable women at greater risk, highlights the impact HIV criminalisation is having on women in Canada, notably that it is preventing sexual assault survivors living with HIV from coming forward due to a fear they will be prosecuted for HIV non-disclosure (which, ironically, is treated as a more serious sexual assault than rape).

Moreover, treating HIV-positive women as sex offenders is subverting sexual assault laws designed to protect sexual autonomy and gender equality. Front-line workers and lawyers say they’re hearing from HIV-positive women who are afraid to report rape and domestic abuse for fear of being charged with aggravated sexual assault themselves.


“People come to me all the time who don’t know what to do,” says Cynthia Fromstein, a Toronto-based criminal lawyer who’s worked on 25 to 30 non-disclosure cases. “Canada, unfortunately, is virulent in its zeal to prosecute aggravated sexual assault related to HIV non-disclosure.”

Screenshot 2017-01-13 09.48.41It also features a strong editorial, ‘HIV disclosure double jeopardy’ by the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network’s Cecile Kazatchkine and HALCO’s Executive Director, Ryan Peck, which notes:

In a statement that mostly flew under the radar, Minister of Justice Jody Wilson-Raybould declared, on World AIDS Day (December 1), her government’s intention “to examine the criminal justice system’s response to non-disclosure of HIV status,” recognizing that “the over-criminalization of HIV non-disclosure discourages many individuals from being tested and seeking treatment, and further stigmatizes those living with HIV or AIDS.”


Wilson-Raybould also stated that  “the [Canadian] criminal justice system must adapt to better reflect the current scientific evidence on the realities of this disease.”


This long-overdue statement was the first from the government of Canada on this issue since 1998, the year the Supreme Court of Canada released its decision on R v. Cuerrier, the first case to reach the high court on the subject.

15937182_1055417094604635_6279465723502378214_oFinally, the magazine features a number of promiment HIV activists from Canada, including Alex McClelland, who is studying the impact of HIV criminalisation on people accused and/or convicted in Canada.

He contributed his first piece to HJN last month.

US: Discussion about the decriminalisation of HIV takes centre stage at World AIDS day panel in Georgia

A panel of HIV activists and LGBT organizers took aim at laws in Georgia that criminalize people with HIV and can leave them facing prison sentences of up to 20 years.

The discussion about decriminalizing HIV took center stage at a World AIDS Day panel on Nov. 30. People with HIV in Georgia can face a prison term of up to 10 years for having sex with someone without disclosing their HIV status. Even acts like spitting – which do not transmit HIV – are criminalized when directed towards a law enforcement officer with penalties that include up to 20 years of prison time.

Last year, a gay Atlanta man was charged in South Carolina with exposing a sex partner to HIV. Tyler Orr said he did disclose and as the panelists pointed out during the recent discussion, what counts as disclosure and how to avoid “he said, she said” debates in court is unclear.

“What advocates have tried to encourage folks to do in this really unwinnable situation is to have a notarized document or affidavit before you engage in one of these punishable acts,” Mel Medalle of SisterLove told the crowd of about 40 people.

“Which almost never happens, but that is how extreme and absurd this situation is,” Medalle added.

Nina Martinez, a member of the Coalition to End HIV Criminalization in Georgia, pointed out that disclosure laws can also create safety risks for people with HIV.

“Every single time, especially as a woman, every single time, it’s me risking my personal safety,” Martinez said.

Marxavian Jones, who serves as one of Georgia Equality’s Youth HIV Policy Advisors, echoed agreed with Martinez.

“Who is going to defend me when I disclose my status to someone and they take it to social media and decide they want to tell everybody,” Jones said.

The Center for HIV Law & Policy has pointed to the increased risk of intimate partner violence that can come with disclosure, writing that disclosure can “provide an additional excuse, or cover, for physical violence.”

The ongoing stigma of HIV-positive individuals also means that – as Jones pointed out – a disgruntled lover posting a partner’s HIV status to social media can have real consequences, including job loss or being outed to family.

During the National HIV Prevention Conference in Atlanta last year, public health experts and HIV activists argued that rather than criminalizing HIV-positive people, and adding to the stigma they face, people with HIV should be pushed to treatment options.

At the recent panel, participants also highlighted legislation being drafted by the Coalition to End HIV Criminalization in Georgia. The coalition is currently reaching out to legislators to find a sponsor for the bill.

“[The legislation is] so we can repeal, which would completely get rid of it,” Medalle said. “The other option would be to reform it, so to make changes to it but to ultimately have some semblance of it.”

While Medalle said it may seem like a “no brainer that we wouldn’t want this [law],” stigma and other means of criminalizing HIV-positive individuals makes the issue more complicated. In Texas and a handful of other states, there are no specific statutes that target people with HIV but they are still prosecuted under other laws including reckless endangerment.

Reforming the law means that advocates can create better standards for prosecutions, and can “craft a law that comports with modern HIV science, what we know about the routes of transmission,” Medalle said.

Martinez, who is a member of the coalition, said the HIV criminalization law in Georgia also falls short in other aspects.

“The law in Georgia doesn’t require intent to infect, it doesn’t require likelihood of transmission because it has things like spit, urine, feces in it. It doesn’t require transmission,” Martinez said.

The Georgia law also doesn’t take into account issues like condom usage or advising a partner to take PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis) after sexual intercourse – acts which reduce the likelihood of transmission. The reforms to the law would change that, the panelists said.

Emily Halden Brown, a Georgia Equality field organizer who organized the panel discussion, said the event highlighted how people with HIV are impacted by it.

“I think the most valuable moment in all of the discussions I’ve ever been a part of on this, are the moments where people living with HIV share the stories of how they are directly impacted,” Brown said. “Anytime someone shares their personal story you can just feel the change in the audience.”

The event was hosted by Georgia Equality, SisterLove, and The Counter Narrative Project at Gallery 874. The panel discussion coincided with the “Living With” art exhibit, which featured art about the experiences of living with HIV. A closing reception helped raise funds for Georgia Equality’s HIV policy work.

Published in Project Q on Dec 12, 2016

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

US: Positive Women's Network – USA (PWN-USA) observes national day of action to end violence against women and demands the repeal of laws criminalizing people living with HIV

Oakland, CA – Women with HIV simultaneously live with the effects of trauma resulting from interpersonal, community, and institutional violence. Studies have shown that the lifelong and compounding effects of these different forms of violence may have consequences far deadlier than the virus itself. October 23, Positive Women’s Network – USA (PWN-USA), along with dozens of endorsing organizations, will observe our third Day of Action to End Violence Against Women Living with HIV, releasing a factsheet highlighting the many forms of violence impacting women living with HIV and their communities, with a special focus on criminalization, discriminatory law enforcement practices and other forms of structural violence, and to offer solutions and ways that government, institutions and organizations can help prevent and mitigate violence and trauma. We will also be hosting a Twitter chat Monday, Oct. 24, at 2 PM ET/11 AM PT to look at the promise of trauma-informed care for women living with HIV as a means to healing the trauma that is far too often a barrier to retention in care (follow the hashtags #pwnspeaks and #EndVAWHIV). Community events are also being held in various cities.
Laws criminalizing people living with HIV (PLHIV) disproportionately affect over-policed communities, including women of color (who make up 80% of the epidemic among women) and women of trans* experience. Harassment and brutality by police and law enforcement create hostile environments that perpetuate trauma in communities of color and other communities significantly impacted by HIV. Consequently, for the 2016 National Day of Action to End Violence Against Women Living with HIV, PWN-USA demands:
  • Repeal and reform of laws criminalizing HIV exposure, non-disclosure and transmission
  • An end to law enforcement practices that target communities disproportionately impacted by HIV, including people of trans and gender nonconforming experience (TGNC), sex workers, people who use drugs, immigrants, people who are unstably housed, people with mental illness, and communities of color
  • An end to stigmatizing and discriminatory interactions, methods of surveillance and brutalization of PLHIV and communities impacted by HIV at the hands of law enforcement
  • Elimination of barriers to safe, stable, and meaningful reintegration into the community for those returning home from jail and prison, those with criminal convictions, and the loved ones who support them.
PWN-USA called for the first Day of Action in 2014 in response to several high-profile murders of women following disclosure of their HIV status. Last year, community events were held in at least 18 cities, as well as a Twitter chat with 228 participants that reached 1.6 million people. 18 blog posts and statements were submitted by individuals and organizations in honor of the Day of Action. PWN-USA hopes this year’s day of action will continue to raise awareness, put forward solutions and mobilize advocates to push for meaningful change to end structural and institutional violence in the form of criminalization of our communities.

Canada: ‘HIV is not a crime’ documentary premieres in Montreal at Concordia University’s ‘The Movement to End HIV Criminalization’ event

Last week, Concordia Unversity in Montreal, Canada, held the world premiere public screening of HJN’s ‘HIV is not a crime training academy’ documentary, followed by three powerful and richly evocative presentations by activist and PhD candidate, Alex McClelland; HJN’s Research Fellow in HIV, Gender, and Justice, Laurel Sprague; and activist and Hofstra University Professor, Andrew Spieldenner.

The meeting, introduced by Liz Lacharpagne of COCQ-SIDA and by Martin French of Concordia University – who put the lecture series together – was extremely well-attended, and resulted in a well-written and researched article by student jounrnalist, Ocean DeRouchie, alongside a strong editorial from Concordia’s newspaper, The Link.

(The full text of both article and editorial are below.)

Presentations included:

  • Edwin Bernard, Global Co-ordinator, HIV Justice Network: ‘The Global Picture: Surveying the State of HIV Criminalisation’
  • Alex McClelland, Concordia University: ‘Criminal Charges for HIV Non-disclosure, Transmission and/or Exposure: Impacts on the Lives of People Living with HIV’
  • Laurel Sprague, Research Fellow in HIV, Gender, and Justice, HIV Justice Network: ‘Your Sentence is Not My Freedom: Feminism, HIV Criminalization and Systems of Stigma’
  • Andrew Spieldenner, Hofstra University: ‘The Cost of Acceptable Losses: Exploring Intersectionality, Meaningful Involvement of People with HIV, and HIV Criminalization’

Articles based on a number of these important presentations will be published on the HJN website in coming



The Movement to End HIV Criminalization

Decrying Criminalization

Concordia Lecture Series Prompts Discussion on HIV Non-disclosure

The sentiment surrounding HIV/AIDS is often one of discomfort. But the reluctance to speak openly about such a significant and impactful disease is hurting the people closest to it.

Under current Canadian legislation, HIV non-disclosure is criminalized. It exercises some of the most punitive aspects of our criminal justice system, explained Alexander McClelland, a writer and researcher currently working on a PhD at Concordia.

McClelland was one of four panelists speaking under Concordia’s Community Lecture Series on HIV/AIDS on Thursday, Sept. 15 in the Hall building. The collective puts on multiple panel-based events in order to address the attitudes, laws, and intersections of political and socioeconomic stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS.

Talking About HIV, Legally

There are three distinct charges that guide prosecutors in HIV cases—transmission (giving the disease to someone without having disclosed your status), exposure (e.g. spitting or biting) and non-disclosure (not informing a sexual partner about your HIV/AIDS status).

Aggravated sexual assault and attempted murder are some of the charges that defendants often face, explained Edwin Bernard, Global Coordinator for the HIV Justice Network, during the discussion.

While there are clearly defined situations in which you are legally obligated to tell a sex partner about your HIV status, there are no HIV-specific laws. This results in the application of general law in cases that are anything but general.

In 2012, the Supreme Court of Canada established that “people living with HIV must disclose their status before having sex that poses a ‘realistic possibility of HIV transmission.’” presents a clear map of situations in which you’d have to tell a sex partner about your status because, in fact, it is not in all scenarios that you’d be legally required to have the discussion.

A lot of it depends on your viral load—the amount of measurable virus in your bloodstream, usually taken in milliliters. A “low” to undetectable viral load is the goal, and is achieved with anti-viral medication.

Treatment serves to render HIV-positive individuals non-infectious, and therefore lowering the risk of transmission. A “high” viral load indicates increased amounts of HIV in the blood.

If protection is used and with a low viral load, one might not have to disclose their status at all.

That said, there is a legal obligation to disclose one’s HIV-positive status before any penetrative sex sans-condom, regardless of viral load. You’d also have to bring it up before having any sex with protection if you have a viral load higher than “low.”

But not all sex is spelled out so clearly.

Oral sex, for instance, is a grey area. says, “oral sex is usually considered very low risk for HIV transmission.” They write that “despite some developments at lower level courts,” they cannot say for sure what does not require disclosure.

There are “no risk” activities. Smooching and touching one another are intimate activities that, as health professionals say, pose such a small risk of transmission that there “should be no legal duty to disclose an HIV-positive status.”

Moving Up, and Out of Hand

Court proceedings are based on how the jury and judge want to apply general laws to specific instances. There are a lot of factors that can influence the outcome.

The case-to-case outlook leads to the criminal justice system dealing with non-disclosure in such a disproportionate way, said McClelland.

The situation begs the question: “Why is society responding in such a punitive way?” asked McClelland.

This isn’t to say that not disclosing one’s HIV status “doesn’t require some potential form of intervention,” he explained, adding that intervention could incorporate counseling, mental-health support, encouragement around building self-esteem and learning how to deal and live with the virus in the world. “But in engaging with the very blunt instrument that is the criminal law is the wrong approach.”

He continued to explain that the reality of the criminalization of HIV ultimately doesn’t do anything to prevent HIV transmission.

“It’s just ruining people’s lives,” said McClelland, who has been interviewing Canadians who have been affected by criminal charges due to HIV-related situations. “It’s a very complex social situation that requires a nuanced approach to support people.”

“It’s just ruining people’s lives. It’s a very complex social situation that requires a nuanced approach to support people.” – Alexander McClelland, Concordia PhD student

Counting the Cases

The Community AIDS Treatment Information Exchange, a Canadian resource for information on HIV/AIDS, states that about 75,500 Canadians were living with the virus by the end of the 2014, according to the yearly national HIV estimates.

That number has gone up since. On Monday, Sept. 19, Saskatoon doctors called for a public health state of emergency due to overwhelmingly increasing cases of new infections and transmission, according to CBC.

In Quebec, there have been cases surrounding transmission and exposure. In 2013, Jacqueline Jacko, an HIV-positive woman, was sentenced to ten months in prison for spitting on a police officer—despite findings that confirm that the disease cannot be transmitted through saliva.

In this situation, Jacko had called for police assistance in removing an unwelcome person from her home. Aggression transpired between her and the officers, resulting in her arrest and eventually her spitting on them, according to Le Devoir.

“[This case] is so clearly based on AIDS-phobia, AIDS stigma and fear,” added McClelland, “and an example of how the police treat these situations and use HIV as a way to criminalize people.”

Police intervention is crucial in the fight against HIV criminalization. McClelland urged people to consider the consequences of involving the justice system in these kinds of situations.

“It’s important to understand that the current scientific reality for HIV is that it’s a chronic, manageable condition. When people take [antivirals] they are rendered non-infectious,” he said. “They should then understand that the fear is grounded in a kind of stigma and historical understanding of HIV that is no longer correct today.”

The first instinct, or notion of calling the police in an instance where one feels they may have been exposed to the virus in some way is “mostly grounded in fear and panic,” he said.

“[Police] respond in a really disproportionate, violent way towards people—so I would consider questioning, or at least thinking twice before calling the police,” McClelland explained.

On the other hand, he suggested approaching the situation in more conventional, educational and progressive methods.

“I think it could be talked through in different ways—by going to a counselor, talking to a close friend, engaging with a community organization, learning about HIV and what it means to have HIV, and understanding that the risk of HIV transmission are very low because of people being on [antivirals].”

As for the current state of Canadian legislation, there are a lot of complexities that hinder heavy-hitting changes to the laws.

Due to the Supreme Court’s rulings in 2012, they are unlikely to review the decision for another decade. For now, the main course of action is “on the ground,” said McClelland. From mitigating people from requesting police involvement in order to “slow down the cases,” to raising awareness through events such as Concordia’s Community Lecture Series, and engaging with the people to resolve issues in community-based ways and collective of care.

Then, McClelland said, “trying to do high-level political advocacy to get leaders to think about how they can change the current situation” would be the next step.

Editorial: Community-Based Research is the Key to HIV Destigmatization and Decriminalization

Receiving an HIV-positive diagnosis is already a life sentence. The state of Canada’s legal system threatens to give those living with the virus another one.

An HIV diagnosis is accompanied by its own set of complexities that are not encompassed in Canada’s criminal law. By pushing HIV non-disclosure cases into the same box as more easily defined assault cases, we are generalizing an issue that frankly cannot be simplified.

This does not reflect the reality that one faces when living with HIV. Criminalizing the virus further stigmatizes what should and could be everyday activities.

This puts the estimated 75,000 Canadians living with HIV at risk of being further isolated. This takes us backwards, considering the scientific progress that has been made to make living with the virus manageable. Under the proper antiviral medication, one’s risk of transmitting the disease is incredibly low. This stigma is rooted in an antiquated understanding of what HIV is and the associated risks—much of that fear having emerged primarily as a result of homophobia.

Further, with over 185 cases having been brought to court, Canada is leading in terms of criminalizing HIV non-disclosure. This pushes marginalized communities farther away. According to estimates from 2014, indigenous populations have a 2.7 higher incidence rate than the non-indigenous Canadian average. Gay men have an incidence rate that is 131 times higher than the rest of the male population in Canada.

As of Sept. 19, doctors in Saskatchewan are calling on the provincial government to declare a public health state of emergency, with a spike in HIV/AIDS cases around the province.

In 2010, it’s reported that indigenous people accounted for 73 per cent of all new cases in the province. Outreach and treatment for these communities are at the forefront of Saskatchewan’s doctor’s recommendations for the government.

With such a highly treatable virus, however, the problem should never have gone this far. It is an excerpt from a much bigger issue.

As we can see from the available statistics, HIV—both the virus and its criminalization—is a mirror for broader inequalities that exist within society. HIV related issues disproportionately affect racialized people, gender non-conforming people, and other marginalized groups.

Discussions around HIV also must include discussions around drug use. The heavy criminalization of injection drugs has created a context where users are driven deep underground, thus putting them at an incredibly high risk for contracting the virus. Treating drug use as a health rather than a criminal issue is an integral part of any effective HIV prevention strategy. Safe injection sites, such as Vancouver’s InSite, have made staggering differences in their communities and prove to be a positive way of combating the spread of HIV.

This is just one of the many ways that we can control the spread of HIV without judicial intervention, without turning the HIV-positive population into criminals.

Using community-based research enables us to not only understand the needs of the affected population—particularly when it comes to understanding the almost inherent intersectionality associated with the spread of HIV—but also allows us to better target our resources towards those who need it most.

Often times, that stretches to include those closest to HIV-positive individuals. Spreading awareness, and developing resources and a support network for them is just as important in fighting the stigmatization of the virus.

The Link stands for the immediate decriminalization of HIV non-disclosure, and the move towards restorative justice systems in non-disclosure cases. As always, those directly affected by an issue are the ones with who are best positioned to create a solution—something that the restorative justice framework embraces.

The disclosure of one’s HIV status is important. Jailing those who don’t disclose it, however, won’t make the virus go away. It simply isolates the problem, places it out of site and out of mind.

Criminalizing HIV patients is less about justice than it is about appeasing the baseless fears of the general population. It’s time for a more effective solution.

Analysis: How is Russia’s HIV-specific law being used to prosecute women living with HIV?

(For Russian version, please, scroll down)

At the beginning of 2016, a military officer from Moscow discovered that he was HIV-positive during routine testing. Later, his wife Natalia, who had tested positive for HIV several years ago, admitted that she had been afraid to disclose her HIV-positive status because she feared violent reprisals from her husband. The officer went to the police to commence criminal proceedings against Natalia, and the investigation continues. The media – as in most countries, our only source of information on cases like this – has not yet provided much more information about the case, so we do not know how long Natalia was forced to hide her HIV-positive status from her husband because of fear of violence.

This is not the only case started against a woman for alleged HIV transmission in 2016.

In January, 24-year-old Nadezhda, who lives in the Amur Oblast in the Russian Far East, was found guilty of charges of alleged HIV transmission to three men, under part 1, Art. 122, and part 3, Art. 122 of the Criminal Code (‘infecting others with HIV, knowing about the presence of this disease). She was sentenced to four years in a penal colony. Nadezhda appealed the verdict, but the panel of judges upheld both the verdict and her sentence.

More recently, in the summer of 2016, a 33-year-old woman from Bryansk, 379 kilometers southwest of Moscow, was prosecuted for allegedly infecting her male partner with HIV. The court used evidence that she was registered at an AIDS centre since 2007 against her, since she met the man in 2014. However, the court was relatively lenient, and she was given a three year suspended sentence followed by a three year probation period. In addition, consistent with best practice, her name was not disclosed in the media, in contrast to Nadezhda’s whose name was published in the news release by the Press Service of the Prosecutor’s Office.

At AIDS 2016 in Durban last month, the HIV Justice Network revealed new data showing that Russia now tops the global HIV criminalisation league table. We found reports of at least 115 arrests, prosecutions and/or convictions in Russia during the 30-month period: April 2013 to October 2015.

We have now collected eleven stories from the Russian media about women convicted under Article 122.

Since 2007, at least three of these women were sentenced to more than four years in prison for alleged HIV transmission to one or more partners. Another woman received a sentence of one year, seven months in prison, and a further two women had a suspended one-year and three-year sentence. In one case the court gave a 20 year-old woman 6-month’s probation. Verdicts for three cases are unknown.

It not just alleged HIV transmission that is being prosecuted; we also know of a 2013 case of a woman from the town of Kungur in the Perm Oblast, who was sentenced to spend one year and three months in a penal colony for potential or perceived HIV exposure: her partner was not infected.

Of particular concern is that in all of the above cases, evidence of prior knowledge of HIV-positive status came from medical records. In Russia, each newly-diagnosed person must sign an informed consent form indicating that he or she is informed of their potential criminal liability under Article 122 for HIV exposure and transmission. This informed consent is attached to their medical history, ready for an official request.

Furthermore, in cases of alleged HIV transmission, the public prosecutor did not adequately investigate the causal link between the accused and the complainant, because there is no test that can establish the timing and direction of transmission without any doubt. It is possible, for example, that some of the male complainants were infected before they had relationships with their female partners and before they themselves were diagnosed HIV-positive.

Article 122 was introduced into the Criminal Code, in particular, to protect women from HIV infection, but it is clear from our research that the law has been applied against women in Russia.

There are many reasons why women are vulnerable when HIV criminalisation intersects with gender inequality and violence. These include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Women often do not make decisions about when to have sex, with whom, and whether or not to use condoms.
  • Women are often economically dependent on their partner, which increases the inequality in their relationships.
  • Unfortunately, there is evidence that intimate partner violence often occurs when a woman discloses her HIV status.
  • Fear of prosecution prevents women from getting tested, knowing their status, and getting HIV treatment, because many laws are applied precisely against those who know about their diagnosis.

There is a hope that shedding light on what is going on in Russia will help mobilize people around these unjust prosecutions. As new cases emerge we will continue to report on them on the HIV Justice Network website.

Evgenia Maron is the HIV Justice Network’s EECA Consultant

В начале 2016 года военный из Москвы во время регулярного обследования обнаружил, что инфицирован ВИЧ. Позднее его жена Наталья, которая получила положительный результат на ВИЧ за несколько лет до этого, пояснила, что боялась рассказать о своем ВИЧ-позитивном статусе из-за страха насилия и возмездия со стороны своего мужа. Военный обратился в полицию, чтобы возбудить дело против Натальи, расследование продолжается. СМИ – во многих странах наш единственный источник информации о таких делах, как это, –  не дают много данных об этом деле, поэтому мы не знаем, сколько лет Наталья вынуждена была скрывать свой ВИЧ-позитивный статус от мужа из-за страха насилия.
Это не единственное дело против женщин за передачу ВИЧ-инфекции в 2016 году.
В январе 24-летняя Надежда, которая живет в Амурской области на Российском Дальнем Востоке, была признана виновной в передаче ВИЧ трем мужчинам по части 1 ст. 122 и части 3 ст. 122 Уголовного Кодекса (“заражение другого лица ВИЧ-инфекцией лицом, знавшим о наличии данного заболевания”). Ей было назначено наказание в виде четырех лет лишения свободы с отбыванием в исправительной колонии общего режима. Надежда обжаловала приговор, но судебная коллегия оставила его в силе.
Совсем недавно, летом 2016 года, против 33-летней женщины из Брянска, что в 379 километрах к юго-западу от Москвы, было возбуждено уголовное дело за предположительное заражение своего друга ВИЧ. Суд использовал против нее тот факт, что женщина состояла на учете в СПИД-центре с 2007 года, а этого мужчину она встретила в 2014 году. Однако, решение суда было относительно мягким, женщине назначили условное лишение свободы на три года с таким же испытательным сроком. Кроме того, как и полагается в лучших практиках, ее имя и фамилию в СМИ не указывали, в отличие от Надежды из предыдущей истории, чье имя было опубликовано в релизе пресс-службы прокуратуры.
На конференции AIDS 2016 в прошлом месяце в Дурбане, Сеть «Правосудие и ВИЧ»  сообщила о новых данных, которые показывают, что Россия возглавляет топ лиги глобальной криминализации ВИЧ. Мы нашли сообщения о по меньшей мере 115 арестах, преследованиях и/или обвинениях в России в течение 30 месяцев с апреля 2013 года по октябрь 2015 года.
Мы собрали одиннадцать историй российских СМИ о женщинах, обвиняемых по статье 122.
Начиная с 2007 года, по меньшей мере трое из этих женщин были приговорены к более, чем четырем годам в тюрьме предположительно за заражение ВИЧ одного или более партнеров. Еще одна женщина получила oдин год семь месяцев тюрьмы, еще две женщины – условный срок продолжительностью один год и три года. В одном случае суд приговорил 20-летнюю женщину к 6-месячному условному сроку. Вердикты по трем случаям не известны.
Преследуется не только предположительное заражение ВИЧ; мы также знаем о деле 2013 года против женщины из города Кунгур в Пермской области, которую приговорили к одному году трем месяца в исправительной колонии за потенциальное или предположительное поставление в опасность заражения ВИЧ: ее партнер не заразился.
Особую обеспокоенность в этих рейсах вызывают доказательства, что обвиняемые знали о своем ВИЧ-позитивном статусе, были основаны на  медицинских историях. В России каждый вновь диагностированный человек должен подписать информированное согласие, где указано, что он или она проинформированы о возможной уголовной ответственности по статье 122 за постановку в угрозу заражения и заражение ВИЧ. Это информированное согласие хранится вместе с медицинской историей пациента, готовое для официального запроса.
Более того, в случаях предположительной передачи ВИЧ, прокурор не исследовал адекватно причинно-следственную связь между подозреваемым и потерпевшим, потому что не существует теста, который может установить время и направление передачи без всякого сомнения. Например, возможно, что некоторые потерпевшие мужчины были заражены ВИЧ до того, как у они вступили в отношения с их партнерами-женщинами, и перед тем, как они сами получили ВИЧ-позитивный диагноз
Статья 122 была введена в Уголовный Кодекс, в частности, чтобы защитить женщин от ВИЧ-инфекции, но из нашего исследования станосится ясно, что в России этот закон применяется против женщин.
Существует много причин, почему женщины более уязвимы, когда криминализация ВИЧ пересекается с гендерным неравенством и насилием. Это касается, но не ограничивается, следующим:
  • Женщины часто не принимают решения о том, когда и с кем заниматься сексом, использовать презервативы или нет.
  • Женщины часто зависимы экономически от своего партнера, что усиливает неравенство в их отношениях.
  • К сожалению, есть данные, что насилие со стороны интимного партнера часто следует за тем, когда женщина раскрывает свой ВИЧ-статус.
  • Страх уголовного преследования мешает женщинам тестироваться, знать свой статус и получать лечение ВИЧ, потому что многие законы применяются исключительно против тех, кто знает о своем диагнозе.
Мы надеемся, что если пролить свет на то, что происходит в России, это поможет мобилизации людей против этого несправедливого преследования. Так как появляются новые кейсы, мы продолжим информировать о них на сайте Сети “Правосудие и ВИЧ”.

AIDS 2016: Intersectional approaches linking issues across areas of criminalisation have been key themes of AIDS 2016

Susana T. Fried – 22 July 2016

In a moment of global attacks on civil society, an intersectional approach linking issues across HIV, sexuality, adult consensual sex and bodily integrity is critical.  Now, more than ever.

Every international AIDS conference seems to have a theme or two that picks up energy as it goes. For me, at the World AIDS Conference 2016 underway in Durban, this was the growing discussion about disastrous impact of criminal law.  Of course, this isn’t a new issue – not at an international AIDS conference, nor in advocacy more generally. The 2012 Global Commission on HIV and the Law explored this in depth. However, at this AIDS conference there was a renewed energy behind it.  In addition, there were a number of conversations that added a new twist, linking criminalisation of same sex conduct, sex work and HIV criminalisation to criminalisation of abortion.

For someone who stands with one leg in the women’s movement and another in the HIV movement, this was a welcome and long overdue conversation. We know the ways in which abusive laws and practices put sex workers, gay and other men who have sex with men, transgender women (there is still a dearth of data on HIV and transmen or lesbians and other women who have sex with women) and other marginalised groups at increased risk of contracting HIV and create serious and unmanageable barriers to accessing services and justice. We also know the ways in which governments use criminal laws not just to contain and regulate the lives of individuals, but they also use it to circumscribe the work of civil society organisations working on these issues.

Laws that criminalise adult consensual sex, non-heteronormative behavior and gender transgression are used to control (often in the name of “protection”), penalise and, as a result, stigmatise a range of sexual practices and sexual and gender identities that put health and rights at risk.  Many of the groups who are on the receiving end of such punitive laws and practices are among those most at risk of contracting HIV.  This conversation, despite massive evidence, still doesn’t always inform legislation and public policy.  This is, in a sense, “old hat” to social movements across the board.

However, what was new to the conversation at this year’s International AIDS Conference (AIDS2016) in a visible way and in a public conversation was the introduction of criminalisation of abortion to the list of forms of criminalisation that intersect with HIV risk and vulnerability.  At one panel, Lucinda O’Hanlon from the UN human rights office drew out some of the parallels between criminalisation of abortion and other forms of criminalisation, stating “Restrictive legal regimes on abortions, including criminalisation, do not reduce abortion rates but rather makes them unsafe. These restrictions are rooted in societal norms that deny women’s agency and capacity to make decisions about their own lives.”  In many countries, women who undergo abortions are stigmatised as improper women, much like sex workers who, as Ruth Morgan Thomas noted “Criminalisation of sex work sends the message that sex workers are not seen as fit and worthy to enjoy rights.”

However, the linkages can be more direct.  For example, transmen who have sex with other men and become pregnant may find it impossible to find safe and non-judgmental sexual and reproductive health care, let alone abortion services.  Sex workers, too, may find their access to abortion services restricted because of the ripple effect of laws criminalising sex work.  With abortion, as with other groups whose identities and practices are penalised, other factors of marginalisation matter.  In the case of abortion, it is women with fewer resources who are at greatest risk of facing punishment for their choice.  The same could be said for those who get penalised for living with HIV.  For example, a young woman who has been coerced into having sex and fears that the man she had sex with might be living with HIV, will find it difficult in many countries, to have an abortion. In some countries, if she is under the age of consent for services, she will have to get parental consent just to be able to see a sexual and reproductive health practitioner. A limited number of countries ban abortions under any circumstances, even, in some cases, as a principle of their country’s constitution (Ecuador, for instance).  Most countries allow abortion under some circumstances, but access the services requires money, information and the ability to travel.  Such resource requirements have a particularly severe impact on young women, poor women, and women in marginalised groups.  Failing to learn lessons from HIV, women, adolescents and girls in countries affected by Zika face similar barriers to services and justice.

In a cross-issue conversation, Edwin Bernard from the HIV Justice Network also noted a “shift towards intersectionality in our efforts to end the punitive and abusive laws against various populations,” including women who seek or undergo abortionsIn this context, these conversations stand as a clarion call for a new or renewed effort to link forces to challenge the growing reliance on punitive laws and practices, including those about abortion, by governments to control those who step outside of social norms around gender and sexuality.

Originally published in Crosstalk