[Feature] It Takes More Than A Village to End HIV Criminalisation

The proverb says, “It takes a village to raise a child”. But what if a mother in the village is living with HIV, and some of the villagers stigmatise her? What if that stigma creates a situation where the mother living with HIV is unjustly criminalised because of her HIV status? Then it takes more than a village to get justice for that woman. It takes a global movement to end HIV criminalisation to sensitise and train lawyers and expert witnesses.  It takes national communities of women living with HIV to support that woman following her release, and to educate the community in which she lives about HIV.

Introduction

In 2016, a Malawi court convicted a woman living with HIV of “negligently and recklessly doing an act likely to spread the infection of any disease which is dangerous to life” under section 192 of the Malawi Penal Code. She had attended a village meeting with her baby which she breastfed as usual before passing the child to her grandmother. Another woman then asked her to hold her baby. It was alleged that this child began breastfeeding briefly before the woman realised what was happening. The child’s mother then reported the incident to the police. The woman was arrested and without legal advice or representation, pleaded guilty, was convicted, and sentenced to nine months’ imprisonment with hard labour.

The circumstances of the case are all the more shocking because women living with HIV are encouraged to breastfeed in Malawi (and in other countries with high HIV prevalence and settings in which diarrhoea, pneumonia and undernutrition are common causes of infant and child deaths) and because HIV-related prosecutions involving breastfeeding are exceedingly rare. Unfortunately, we have seen an increase in the number of such cases since 2016. HJN is working to address this in a number of ways because we believe there should never be prosecutions of women living with HIV for breastfeeding.

In addition, the accused woman was taking antiretroviral therapy. The chances of HIV transmission through even long-term breastfeeding are very low (which is why WHO guidelines recommend it when access to infant formula and clean water are limited) and the chances of transmission during the brief period the baby allegedly fed were infinitesimally small. In fact, the accused woman’s own child, who was routinely breastfed, has not acquired HIV, calling into question any suggestion that she intended to cause harm to the other woman’s child. Perversely, for a system that unjustly condemned her for risking harm to the other woman’s child, her own baby was imprisoned with her, without any arrangements for appropriate feeding and care, negating any notion that the legal system’s purpose was to protect children.

Following media reports of her initial conviction, numerous individuals and organisations – including HJN and our HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE partners, ARASA and SALC – became involved in the case, ultimately changing the outcome for the woman and her family, and laying the groundwork for further anti-HIV stigma advocacy and education in the region. Her story demonstrates the vital role that education, training, strong networks, and community play in the pursuit of HIV justice.

Living with HIV-related stigma

When interviewed at her home in 2019, the woman referred to as “EL” talked about her life:[1]

[1] The initials EL are used instead of her full name following a court order of anonymity to protect her privacy. The interview took place in 2019, during the village visit described later in this article.

“As kids, there were the two of us — me and my brother. My parents faced challenges raising us. Finding the basic necessities like soap and food was a tall order, let alone talking about going to school. It was difficult to get learning materials as well as proper clothes to wear at school. I worked hard in class but couldn’t get past Standard 5 at primary school. Eventually I dropped out, and my brother did the same, … My daily life was taken up doing house chores just like any other girl in the village, as well as helping my parents with farming. At 16, I got married.”

EL further described how she was diagnosed HIV-positive in 2015 after a de facto compulsory HIV test at an antenatal visit. She already had two children and was pregnant with her third. She had heard about HIV but did not know much about it. EL said that the healthcare workers provided a lot of assistance, giving her accurate information about HIV, including the importance of adhering to her antiretroviral treatment (ARVs).

EL and two of her children. Photo: Amos Gumulira/UNDP Malawi

EL said that she generally enjoyed life in her village, although at times she was subject to stigma and discrimination:

“When I went to fetch water at the community borehole, people would laugh at me, and whenever I wanted to participate in community work, you would find pockets of community members talking ill about me. Some people used to insult me, calling me names. But I persevered because my relatives, including the Village Headman himself, gave me support and always stood by my side.”

Members of EL’s family also faced discrimination. “Due to lack of information, a lot of people thought HIV was hereditary and because I was diagnosed HIV-positive, this meant that all my family members had HIV, and they were discriminated against,” EL said.

EL wonders if more could have been done to help her fight stigma. In particular, EL gained a lot of knowledge about HIV from the counselling she got when diagnosed, but perhaps she could have been better equipped with information to share with people in her community:

“A lot of people don’t know that if you adhere to ARVs, you reduce the risk of transmitting HIV to others. This information needs to be passed on to many people. There are also other issues to do with ARVs. A lot of people don’t have adequate information on the effects of ARVs and at the end of the day, they start pointing fingers at each other, giving people room to start speculating about issues to do with witchcraft.”

EL’s prosecution had repercussions for her whole village. One woman from the community explained:

“I was there and very close to where EL was sitting. Yes, she was carrying another woman’s child. This other woman had given the child to EL for safe keeping while she went to stand in a queue, but honestly speaking, I didn’t see EL breastfeed the child. I just heard some people who were sitting a distance from where we were sitting, as they started pointing accusing fingers at her.”

She said that things moved so fast that before they could think of anything to stop what she called “the rumour.” It had gotten out of hand and people started saying that EL had intentionally breastfed the child to transmit HIV.

After receiving a summons, EL voluntarily turned herself in at the police station. She was accompanied by the Village Headman (her grandfather) who wanted first-hand information about what crime she was alleged to have committed. That same day, police transferred EL to a larger town, where she was remanded for three days. At the age of 29, this was the first time that EL had ever left her village.

Days later, she appeared in court and the charge sheet was read out. EL recounted that she had not understood what was happening and could not make arguments because she had no legal representation. EL agreed with the summary of events as they were described, so she was found guilty and was imprisoned together with her youngest child.

She described life in prison as “hell”:

“After a week, my brother showed up to give me my ARVs. All this talk about a woman with HIV breastfeeding. I breastfed but I also found it tough to feed my baby while in prison because there was no provision of special food for babies. We were eating nandolo (pigeon peas) almost every day with Msima ya Mgaiwa (maize meal). And there was only one toilet for a cell of more than 50 people.”

After some time, relatives and other members of her community started visiting, giving her money she could use to buy soap and food for her baby. “When we heard from our Village Headman that she had been arrested, we were so devastated”, a woman from EL’s village explained. “We raised funds for some members to go and give her support only to learn that she had been transferred to one town, then another, but some of us did manage on several occasions to visit her and offer our support when she was in prison.”

Then, out of the blue, EL received a message that some people had come looking for her. She went to meet them: a lawyer, Wesley Mwafulirwa, and his paralegal. They explained why they were there and asked if she would like them to appeal on her behalf. She accepted enthusiastically. “I was excited but at the same time I was confused because I could not believe that I could be so lucky to have these people come to help me.”

Fighting the charges

Solicitor Wesley Mwafulirwa had volunteered to attend training to address legal barriers to prison health and human rights presented by the Southern African Litigation Centre (SALC). He travelled from Malawi to South Africa to attend the training which addressed useful regional and international mechanisms, and presented insights about legal practice and strategic litigation to support prison health and human rights, particularly for those facing heightened vulnerability to HIV and TB.

Wesley Mwafulirwa Photo: Amos Gumulira/UNDP Malawi

At the training, two lawyers spoke about their pro bono work. Wesley remembers one of them, Allan Maleche (Executive Director of KELIN), saying that each participant should take at least one case when they go back to their country. It was a turning point in Wesley’s career.

He had not been home long when he saw an article in the newspaper about an HIV-positive person convicted for trying to spread HIV. That person was EL.

Wesley, who lives in a small town in northern Malawi, drove for more than ten hours to get to the jail where EL was incarcerated. He explained his determination, saying “I was so fired up! I’d just come from SALC’s training … and I said, ‘I want to take up this case’.”

Wesley interviewed EL and offered to take her case pro bono. Wesley contacted SALC, who offered technical support. Their first step was to get an order for anonymity to protect EL’s identity and gain greater control over media reporting. Next, they faced an ethical question. They wanted to challenge the constitutionality of the law but that would take a long time. Because EL was in prison, they decided to undertake a criminal appeal instead. They applied for EL to be let out of custody on bail pending appeal. This is usually a difficult application to win, but they were successful and EL was released from prison.

In the appeal, the court was asked to consider whether the conviction could be justified, whether the penal provision was constitutional (arguing it was overly broad and vague), and whether the sentence was manifestly unjust. Wesley used his learnings from the SALC training to raise international principles and instruments relating to sentencing, which the court referenced and upheld. Michaela Clayton, then Executive Director of the AIDS and Rights Alliance for southern Africa (ARASA), and now a member of HJN’s Supervisory Board, provided expert testimony. Another expert witness, Dr Ruth Brand, identified through HJN’s global network, gave expert scientific evidence to show the risk of HIV transmission had been “infinitesimally small.”

The case was heard by Honourable Justice Zione Ntaba, who held that the proceedings in the trial court were irregular and “blatantly bias” against EL, compromising her right to a fair trial. Justice Ntaba found the charge sheet had been defective and therefore EL’s plea should not have been recorded as guilty. She noted the law must be sensitive to the accused’s knowledge or belief (or lack of) that HIV would be transmitted. Justice Ntaba decided the conviction could not be justified, acknowledging human rights principles against the overly broad criminalisation of HIV non-disclosure, exposure, or transmission. EL’s sentence was set aside. (The Constitutional challenge was referred to a full-member panel of the Constitutional Court although the case was not pursued.)

Notably, Justice Ntaba was a member of the African Regional Judges Forum to discuss HIV, TB and Human Rights (a process which is owned and planned by the judges and run with support from UNDP and funding from the Global Fund).

Fighting the stigma

Shortly after EL’s arrest, the Coalition of Women and Girls Living with HIV and AIDS in Malawi (COWLHA) and the Malawi branch of the International Community of Women Living with HIV/AIDS (ICW-Malawi) discussed the case at a roundtable meeting. At first, everyone was surprised and even laughed, questioning how she could have breastfed someone else’s child. They had never heard of a criminal case involving infant feeding and did not understand what they were dealing with.

During their discussions, COWLHA and ICW-Malawi agreed that the prosecution of EL was a manifestation of stigma and misinformation about HIV in the community. They learned more about the unjust measures that EL had experienced, like being imprisoned without being given a chance to be heard and not being given the chance to prepare and take her medication and things she needed to care for her child. COWLHA and ICW decided to get involved.

Representatives from COWLHA and ICW meet with members of EL’s village. Photo: COWLHA/ICW

Concerned that EL could face social and community hostility after her release, COWHLA and ICW planned a visit to the village to provide psychosocial support to EL and to work with traditional community leaders to provide community sensitisation on HIV, addressing issues of stigma and discrimination. Their efforts helped change some community members’ ideas about HIV.

The community formed two support groups— one for youth and another for adults (notably both were predominantly female groups). They have conducted numerous activities, including home visits, supporting children to go to school, helping the elderly with house chores, and they have a garden where they grow vegetables and rice. They hoped to access loans to become self-reliant. They also had a list of issues they wanted to learn more about, including preventing mother-to-child transmission, sexual and reproductive health, positive living, stigma and discrimination, and treatment literacy.

Visiting EL at home

In September 2019, a three-member team comprising Edna Tembo (Executive Director of COWLHA), Charity Mkona (ICW Board Chair), and Peter Gwazayani (media consultant), set out for EL’s village.

The team was welcomed by the Group Village Headman, who took them to EL’s house. EL recognised Edna from the work COWLHA and ICW-Malawi had done in the community previously. EL welcomed the team with a big smile.

EL and her husband looked cheerful as they laid a mat on the veranda of their house for the visitors. Her mother later joined the discussion.

EL was interested to learn that HJN wanted to write about her case and the type of interventions that had been helpful, to share the story with advocates for HIV justice around the world.

EL recounted that when she returned to the village, “most members of my community received me with happiness, particularly my relatives. The day I arrived, they were jubilant. They celebrated with songs that we normally sing during special occasions in the village.”

COWLHA ED Edna Tembo and Charity Mkona of ICW chat with EL, her husband and her mother (at far distance). Photo: COWLHA/ICW

EL lives with her husband, five children and her mother in a compound made up of three grass thatched houses. She introduced her children:

“The oldest is 13 and she goes to school, as do the second and third. The fourth, a little girl, is the child I was with in prison. She has not yet started school. And then there is this one, who I am breastfeeding. She is the fifth one. She has been tested for HIV on two occasions and will be going for the last test soon. The other two tests have come back HIV-negative.”

EL’s accuser and her family still lives in the same village which has presented some difficulties. EL said that on several occasions she had tried to greet them when they passed each other, but she had been ignored. “They don’t talk to me but from deep down in my heart, I have no grudges against them,” EL said.  “I am just living my normal life,” EL says, although now she says that she would never agree to carry anybody else’s child, for any reason.

Moving beyond criminalisation

With respect to the community-level interventions, lawyer Annabel Raw, who worked at SALC during the time they supported the EL case said:

“As lawyers, we would never have thought to consider such an intervention had ICW-Malawi and COWLHA not shared their insights and been willing to support the client and her community. Their work has been so important to ensuring that meaningful justice was done to combat the actual root cause of the prosecution — stigma and discrimination — and to reconcile EL with her community.”

Engaging with the community also influenced ICW-Malawi and COWLHA’s thinking about HIV criminalisation. COWLHA’s Edna Tembo noted that:

Supporting people who have been prosecuted, particularly women, gives them power, … However, it is very important to stress that psychological support is absolutely vital for those who have been prosecuted. That includes family support, and a supportive community environment enabling acceptance of an individual accused.”

Tembo was also quick to emphasise that there is more work to be done. That work includes awareness raising and ongoing support to the community, especially to identify and train volunteers, empowering them to provide services at community level and to link them to health facilities and district offices for continued support and mentorship.

EL carries her youngest child home. Photo: Amos Gumulira/UNDP Malawi

EL described her dreams for the future:

“My wish now is to see my children progress in school so that they become productive citizens in this community and help it grow. That’s my dream. If they get educated, they will be able to stand on their own and support others. My husband is not employed and it is a challenge to get money for school fees for our children. We would love to get a loan or training to have greater knowledge of economic empowerment because we want to be self-reliant. We would then love to lease some land to grow rice to sell to pay back the loan.

“It’s also my wish to see the lives of all people in the community uplifted. We farm but on a small-scale. If we were to be supported with funds, I’d love to see the community establish big rice farms, working in groups, harvesting for consumption and for sale. In so doing, we would be able to uplift our lives for the better.”

Further Information

Learn more about Wesley’s experiences in EL’s case here and here.

Learn more about the African Regional Judges Forum here.

The full High Court judgement is available here, with a summary included here.

Read more about the successful HIV and AIDS Management Act community advocacy here.


This article is based on information provided by ICW-Malawi and COWLHA following their visits to EL’s village, and an interview with Wesley Mwafulirwa published by UNDP. HJN provided financial and logistical support for the village visits thanks to a grant provided to the HIV Justice Global Consortium from the Robert Carr Fund for civil society networks.     

Canada: HIV Legal Network publishes new guide to assist journalists in reporting responsibly about HIV criminalisation cases

Media Reporting: HIV and the Criminal Law

This guide is an evidence-based resource to assist journalists in Canada in reporting responsibly and accurately about alleged HIV non-disclosure and resulting criminal cases.

People living with HIV in Canada can be prosecuted for “aggravated sexual assault” (one of the most serious charges in the Criminal Code) if they don’t tell their sexual partners, in advance of intimate contact, that they have HIV. The criminalization of “HIV non-disclosure” is severe and rooted in stigma: people face charges even in cases where there is little or no risk of transmitting HIV. The maximum penalty is life imprisonment, and a conviction carries with it a mandatory designation as a sex offender. This approach has been criticized, both domestically and internationally, as being contrary to human rights and principles of public health, including by United Nations experts. Instead of reducing HIV transmission, HIV criminalization is now recognized by many experts as a driver of the epidemic.

There have been dramatic advances in treating and preventing HIV, which have resulted in a gradual change in public discourse and understanding. But there’s still a lot of misinformation. Media can play a vital role by modernizing the discussions we’re having about HIV and by reporting about HIV non-disclosure in an evidence-based and responsible way that doesn’t perpetuate stigma.

The guide is available in English and in French

UK: National AIDS Trust responds to misinformation presented in the case of woman accused of using bloodied clothes as a weapon

National AIDS Trust reacts to Newtown HIV threat court case

THE National AIDS Trust has moved to quell fears that anyone could contract HIV via bloodied clothing after a woman was fined for threatening to infect a police officer in Newtown last week.

This week C. pleaded guilty to assaulting an emergency worker when she appeared at Welshpool Magistrates Court.

The 35-year-old was brought in to custody at Newtown Police Station on August 26 covered in blood – which she claimed belonged to someone else – and became abusive, eventually stripping and throwing the bloodied clothes at custody sergeant Grace Coburn, telling her the clothes had hepatitis and HIV on them.

Sgt Coburn was told by C. that she probably also “had Covid as well”.

But the trust – the UK charity dedicated to transforming society’s response to HIV – has responded to the “misinformation” presented by the case, moving to reassure people that HIV cannot be transmitted in this way.

Danny Beales, head of policy and campaigns at the National AIDS Trust, said: “It’s disappointing to read that HIV is still being used as a threat in 2020.

“The stigma and misinformation that surrounds HIV mean that cases like this are far too common. We would reassure readers that there is no risk from HIV on bloodied clothing as the virus is very fragile and does not last long outside the body.

“Also, the majority of people living with HIV in the UK are on effective treatment which means they cannot pass on the virus in any way.”

C. was given a £200 fine and will pay compensation of £50 to the officer. She will also pay £85 costs.

US: Interview with JoAnn Wypijewski on the Nushawn Williams’s case, a “signpost on the road to the criminalization of HIV”

Where Do Sex Panics Come From?

An Interview with JoAnn Wypijewski 

Sex panics keep happening because they tap into Americans’ deepest fears about the need to protect innocents from the threat of evil — fears that are endemic among the Left as well as the Right. Meanwhile, lives are destroyed in the process.

JoAnn Wypijewski’s new book, What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About #MeToo: Essays on Sex, Authority and the Mess of Life, is a collection of her writing over several decades about sex, class, and liberation – and what we all lose when we surrender to moral panic. In the book, she explores and complicates narratives surrounding AIDS, the “pedophile priest” scandals that have plagued the Catholic church, #MeToo, and many others.

What is a sex panic?

JWIt’s a social eruption fanned by the media and characterized by alarm over innocence imperiled. That innocence, historically and stereotypically, has belonged to white women and children. The sex panic always involves some form of bad actor. Usually the bad man, the predator, is a lurking, mutable, social presence, a menace against which the population can be mobilized. Anthropologist Roger Lancaster calls this a “poisoned solidarity.” You can go back to Birth of a Nation. You can go back to the white slavery panic of the 1880s. Or a more modern period: the 1950s, where the Red Scare was a form of moral panic, and there was a “lavender panic” at the same time.
 
Superpredators,” the priests scandal, the Satanic panic — all have featured a tremendous amount of media attention and repetition of a storyline that cannot be questioned: a narrative of good versus evil where the evil one is out there doing something to the good, and the evil authorizes all the bad that the good can do.Anything can be done to the bad man. And those doing it can feel a tremendous sense of vindication and social validation. That has accomplished something very practical: it has helped to build the prison state. According to a terrific book called The War on Sex, sex crimes are the fastest-growing cause of people being imprisoned. As leftists, we have to be concerned about that. But it’s also culturally developed a turn of mind that there are some people against whom anything is justified.
 
LFLet’s talk about one of those people. Tell us about Nushawn Williams.
 
JWNushawn Williams was a young man from Brooklyn in the 1990s who was a petty drug dealer involved in various criminal activities, who, along with a number of other young people at the time, went upstate to sell drugs and to have what would be probably a better life. He went to the town of Jamestown, about seventy miles southeast of Buffalo, where I grew up. He was very popular with women and very successful as an entrepreneur. He was arrested at one point and tested for HIV, and he was told he was HIV-positive.
Perhaps he didn’t believe it or was in denial — we don’t know — but he continued to have sex with young women. A bunch of them turned up HIV-positive, and the state did something it had never done before. It took his mugshot and put it on a poster that said, “Public health threat, warning, warning, danger. If you’ve had sex with this man, come down immediately for a test.” And then it counseled those looking at this poster that their identity would be completely confidential. Of course, they had just busted his confidentiality! But the fact is that Williams did everything that the state wanted. When he was told he was HIV-positive, they asked him, “Who did you have sex with?” He gave them all the names.
 
LFThere’s a contemporary resonance here. As we’re rediscovering now with COVID-19, contact tracing is hard because people often do not cooperate with the authorities to the extent that he did. Nushawn Williams was a model participant in this process.
 
JWHe was a model participant!
This case was a signpost on the road to the criminalization of HIV, a blaring alarm: “There is an HIV predator among you.” He was on the cover of all the tabloids and the New York Times, and on CNN and in the world press.And all the stories were the same. He was a “lethal Lothario.” He was the devil himself. He was a monster, he was a demon, he was an HIV predator, and this was just declared. These young women were all interviewed. They’d said a variety of things which came down to, “I thought I was in love. He gave me gifts. I thought he would be around. I’m so sad and broken now.” And that was pretty much the story, except for one woman who said, “I don’t know, I won’t join in on this. I loved him once. I’m not going to demonize him.” This woman was eighteen years old.I thought, “She’s the one I want to talk to.” And I met her in jail. She was in jail for breaking probation. And then I met some other people who either had been with him or had been in the same world as he was, and I explored that.The whole town was suddenly embracing young women who it never had any interest in, at all. They were “trash.” I mean, I would not call them that, but that’s how they were perceived. But suddenly they were the flower of Jamestown. Suddenly they were innocent girls who had been defiled by this awful monster, this animal, this predator. And suddenly they were humanized. They were humanized as victims.Some had no way of certainly knowing [that they got the virus from Williams]. And the authorities were completely uninterested in how he may have contracted the virus.I always think of every story I do as a class story. That’s my background. Before I started writing about sex, I was mostly writing about labor and class and unions and union politics, but always, I was interested in the people involved and their particularities. I couldn’t talk to Williams. [His lawyers declined to make him available for interviews.] But I was interested in the world of the women and the world of the town. After that story appeared, people in Jamestown were upset. They said, “You make it out as if the whole town is terrible.”
 
LFWell, it did sound like a depressing place, but you also make clear that it was no more depressing than many other American cities.
 
JWThe guy who became mayor, Sam Teresi — he was then the development director — was straightforward about what deindustrialization had done to the country. This was the mid-’90s, but while people tend to see deindustrialization as an effect of NAFTA, in that part of New York state and in New York City, it had all started much sooner, in the late ’60s. Then, by the late 1970s, everything starts shutting down. So, in Buffalo, where I grew up, where my uncle worked in the steel mill, my father worked in a factory as a tool and die maker — for the company that invented the windshield wiper — all of us were affected. Catastrophe hit these towns and these cities. Teresi was saying, even with the best plans that we have here in Jamestown trying to make something happen, no one’s going to make an oasis in the desert of deindustrialized America.
 
I think that’s pretty heavy, and I think people ought to have paid attention to that part of it, because why were these guys involved as [drug drealers]? There were no other avenues, certainly, for good wages. And the young women, if they weren’t in the business, they were working in screw factory making $6 an hour, and that’s the reality. And so sex in that context, and sex with Nushawn Williams in that context, was not the worst deal. He presented the best deal. And that should raise questions for all of us.It should also, as in every story, force us to recognize the humanity of every actor. That’s what I’ve tried to do. My whole career is to look at, even people who’ve done the worst thing, and try to see them not as monsters, not as demons, but products of a culture, of a society. They were once some little bitty baby in some mother’s arms, and something brought them to some point where, say, they kill Matthew Shepard out at the fence, or they do something heinous to prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Figures in the book exist within historical time and within social, cultural, and economic time. Their choices are confined the way all our choices are confined. There was no way for a Nushawn Williams to get a fair shake in this situation, He’d been declared a monster. He’d been declared public enemy. He’d been declared a criminal and had to be put away, and the state didn’t have particular laws criminalizing HIV, but it found other means. He was convicted of having sex with two underage women (statutory rape) and served twelve years in prison. Hard time.When he got out, the state decided that it was going to bring a case for civil commitment against him and declared him a “sexually dangerous” person. Then there was the kangaroo-type trial to prove that, which occurs all over this country. He was found indeed to be a sexually dangerous person, not for what he did, but for what he might do, and he joined some six thousand other people who are confined to mental institutions, detained indefinitely, without hope of getting out, supposedly for “treatment.”I think we need to look at the social mechanisms that organize consent for punishment.What’s always disturbing to me is that this ecstatic, panicky, moralizing approach is also embraced by the Left, by people who might shun, for instance, the Times reporting on terrorism.
 
LFYes, what about the sex exception on the Left? It seems especially jarring now, when ideas like the abolition of prisons and of police have so much traction, and restorative justice is a mainstream concept. The idea of due process would be taken for granted if someone was accused of murder, yet even people on the Left still demand the blood of anyone accused of a sexual violation.
 
JWIf we’re serious about culture and its formative power, then you have to look at the dominant culture that is the cauldron of current damaged life. We have to be serious about that, because it does form what James Baldwin called the “habits of thought” that reinforce and sustain the habits of power. I mean, toward authoritarianism. How we resist those habits of thought means separating yourself — or trying to — from them. That’s the work of a lifetime, because the propagandizing power of the culture is nonstop.
 
ABOUT THE AUTHORJoAnn Wypijewski is a journalist and the author of What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About #MeToo: Essays on Sex, Authority and the Mess of Life.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWERLiza Featherstone is a columnist for Jacobin, a freelance journalist, and the author of Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers’ Rights at Wal-Mart.

Watch all the videos of Beyond Blame @HIV2020 – our “perfectly executed…deftly curated, deeply informative” webshow

Earlier this month, advocates from all over the world came together for two hours to discuss the successes and challenges of the global movement to end HIV criminalisation.

All of the recordings of Beyond Blame: Challenging HIV Criminalisation for HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE are now available on the HIV Justice Network’s YouTube Channel.

“HUGE pleasure 2B at #BeyondBlame2020 conference – deftly curated, deeply informative; speakers were great; the passion & commitment to #HIVjustice was palpable. Much progress yet a sober reminder that the work is far from over.”

Kene Esom, Policy Specialist: Human Rights, Law and Gender, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)

 

The full-length director’s cut version – with enhanced audio and video – is now available in English as well as with the audio track of the recorded simultaneous translation in French, Spanish, Russian, and Portuguese.

The English version is also available as a YouTube playlist in ‘bite-size’ chunks, with each segment of the webshow available as standalone videos.  This means, for example, if you just want to watch (or share) the segment on ‘women challenging HIV criminalisation in Africa‘, or on ‘bringing science to justice, and justice to science‘, it’s now possible.

“That webinar was perfectly executed. Great sound, engaging transitions (they actually played people on and off!), and multiple speakers in various collections. Having ALL OF THEM back at the end showed the breadth of this technical accomplishment and the depth of the speakers’ field of expertise. Not everyone may notice these things but boy, I sure do, and it was totally pro. I’ve seen big name conferences who couldn’t get this right… Congratulations all around, and especially to [director] Nicholas Feustel.

Mark S King, My Fabulous Disease

 

We have also made available for the first time the standalone recording of Edwin Cameron’s closing speech, which inspired so many.  The transcript is included in full below.

“We have been being battling this fight for many years. Since the start of the HIV epidemic we as gay men, as gay women, as queers, as transgender people, as sex workers, as people using drugs, have been persecuted by the criminal law. And I’m here to say, “Enough! Enough!

We have achieved a great deal with our movement, with the HIV Justice Network. We have achieved a great deal in conscientizing law makers, law givers and the public. It is now time for us to join in unison to demand the end of these stigmatising, retrograde, unproductive, hurtful, harmful laws.

It is a long struggle we’ve engaged in. And it’s one that has hurt many of us. Some of us here today, some of us listening in, some of us who have spoken, have felt the most brutal brush of the law. They have been imprisoned, unjustly prosecuted, unjustly convicted, and unjustly sent away.

HIV is not a crime. But there is more to it. Criminalising HIV, criminalising the transmission or exposure of HIV, as many countries on my own beautiful continent Africa do, is not just stupid and retrograde. It impedes the most important message of the HIV epidemic now, which is that this epidemic is manageable. I’ve been on antiretroviral treatment now for very nearly 23 years. My viral load has been undetectable for more than 20.

We can beat this, but we have to approach this issue as public health issue. We have to approach it rationally and sensibly, and without stigma, and without targeting people, and without seeking to hurt and marginalise people.We’ve made calamitous mistakes with the misapplication of the criminal law over the last hundred years, in the so-called ‘war on drugs’. We continue to make a calamitous mistake in Africa and elsewhere by misusing the criminal law against queer people like myself. We make a huge mistake by misusing the criminal law against people with HIV.

Let us rise today and say, “Enough!”

 

How is the Expert Consensus Statement bringing science to justice?

Two years ago this month saw the launch of the Expert consensus statement on the science of HIV in the context of criminal law (Expert Consensus Statement) at a press conference during AIDS2018 in Amsterdam, published in the Journal of the International AIDS Society (JIAS), and translated into French, Russian and Spanish.

Authored by 20 of the world’s leading HIV scientists, and endorsed by more than 70 additional expert scientists, as well as IAPAC, IAS and UNAIDS, the Expert Consensus Statement described current evidence on HIV transmission, treatment effectiveness and forensics so that HIV-related science may be better understood in criminal law contexts.

The Expert Consensus Statement was the end result of a multi-year process developed by a partnership comprising the International AIDS Society (IAS), the International Association of Providers of AIDS Care (IAPAC), the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and the HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE Steering Committee.

The HIV Justice Network has now published an interim scoping report, written by HJN’s Senior Policy Analyst Sally Cameron, that explores the impact of the Expert Consensus Statement in the two years since its publication.  It is now available in English and French (see bottom of page for download links).

The report concludes that the Expert Consensus Statement is meeting both its primary aim (to support defence arguments in HIV criminalisation cases) and its secondary aim (supporting lobbying for law and policy reform) in many jurisdictions. But it also found that the process of developing and promoting the content of the Expert Consensus Statement has delivered additional benefits that further support advocacy efforts to end HIV criminalisation.

In summary, the Expert Consensus Statement is being used to:

  • Assist HIV criminalisation defence arguments and strategic litigation, changing courts’ understanding of transmission risks associated with HIV and the effectiveness of modern treatments.
  • Shape advocacy for law and policy reform, including mobilising stakeholders to lobby for reform, delivering law and policy reform, improving legal and judicial practice, facilitating community advocates’ access to government and judicial bodies, and gaining support from public health bodies and customary and religious leaders.
  • Inform scientific and medical thinking, including being cited in many peer reviewed articles and in scientific and medical press, being hosted on the sites of scientific/medical/academic organisations, and being ranked the #1 JIAS article to date.
  • Develop stronger relationships that cross silos and advance capacity, enabling efficient and informal communications between partners to rapidly move projects forward, with Expert Consensus Statement authors supporting community organisations by assisting in defence cases, answering ad hoc questions and co-authoring abstracts, presentations and articles.
  • Disseminate accurate, positive messages about people living HIV and the issue of HIV criminalisation, including facilitating keynote addresses and presentations at notable conferences and meetings, and generating global mainstream, community and social media. Ultimately, interest in the Expert Consensus Statement has elevated the global conversation about HIV criminalisation, with co-ordinated messaging translating into a powerful positive narrative in many sites.

 

Canadian study provides damning evidence of the “dramatic overrepresentation” of Black men in HIV criminalisation news reporting

A new study published this month by a group of leading Canadian social science academics provides damning evidence of the extraordinary over-representation of Black and Black immigrant male defendants in news reporting of Canadian HIV criminalisation cases.

Eric Mykhalovskiy and Colin Hastings from York University, Toronto; Chris Sanders from Lakehead University, Thunder Bay; and Laura Bisaillon from the University of Toronto Scarborough, analysed 1680 English-language articles published between 1989 and 2015.

They found that Black men comprised 21% of those charged with HIV criminalisation offences – which under Canadian law relates to non-disclosure of known HIV-positive status, usually charged as aggravated sexual assault –  but were the focus of 62% of newspaper articles covering the issue. The pattern was amplified for Black men who were immigrants or refugees who made up 15% of those charged but were the focus of 61% of newspaper stories.

The researchers note:

“The result is a type of popular racial profiling in which HIV non-disclosure is treated as a crime of Black men who are represented as dangerous, hypersexual foreigners who threaten the health and safety of the public and, more broadly, the imagined Canadian nation.”

 

The study is important for more than its quantitative findings, as it also considers the role of the media in the construction of public perception.

The researchers argue that media reporting involves a process of “recontextualization,” which occurs when speech is selected and moved from one place (e.g. a court) and fitted into another for a different purpose (e.g. a media story). In other words, they say, information is “selectively reported and repurposed into news stories”.

Their analysis found that in media reporting of HIV criminalisation cases, ‘whiteness’ became a neutral position. This usually meant that when a person was white their ethnicity or immigration status was rarely, if ever, mentioned.

For Black men living with HIV, however, the researchers found that the reporting was racialised, depicting such men as morally blameworthy and discussing them in terms of their “immigration status, hypersexuality, and other forms of racialised difference”.

Consequently, they argue, Black men living with HIV are depicted in these news reports not only as a threat to individual complainants, but also as a threat to Canadian society.

The researchers also discussed how news media reporting routinely involves forms of writing that silence people facing HIV-related criminal charges. Their experiences are rarely heard which, they summise, is likely due to reporters’ decisions about who to quote, as well as defendants being discouraged by their laywers to publicly comment on their cases.

Consequently, people living with HIV involved in HIV criminalisation cases are only spoken about, and their lives are only known about within the context of crime stories.

The authors hope their analysis will help advocates “to intervene in popular news coverage of HIV non-disclosure”, urging the use of counter-narratives emphasising how HIV non-disclosure, exposure or transmission should be seen as a public health issue and not a criminal justice issue.

They conclude:

The profound silencing of Black immigrant men in newspaper coverage of HIV non-disclosure suggests the need to support strategies that create an affirmative presence in mainstream media for Black men living with HIV.


Source

Eric Mykhalovskiy, Chris Sanders, Colin Hastings & Laura Bisaillon (2020) Explicitly racialised and extraordinarily over-represented: Black immigrant men in 25 years of news reports on HIV non-disclosure criminal cases in Canada, Culture, Health & Sexuality, DOI: 10.1080/13691058.2020.1733095

Further resources

 

France: HIV organisations mobilise to halt sensationalism of news coverage in police violence case

Spit and HIV: the violence of words

Automatic translation via Deepl.com. For original article in French, please scroll down.

Spit and HIV: the violence of words

Following the release of an amateur video in which a police officer stopped and violently beat a demonstrator, a spokesperson for the police union Alliance, in defence of the officer involved, claimed that the person stopped spat blood in the officer’s face and said, “I have AIDS, you’re going to die. Since then, the victim has denied living with HIV and having threatened the police officers with “contamination” by spitting on them.

The case has swelled up in some media outlets, which have taken up the police unionist’s explanations without deflating the sensationalism surrounding the “danger” of spitting on an HIV-positive person.

Faced with this, many of his AIDS activists and associations of people living with HIV intervened to put the facts in their place, regardless of the position of responsibility that existed during the arrest. “The rapidity of news coverage regularly implies approximations or, worse, leaving room for false beliefs. This is particularly true with regard to HIV/AIDS. But to allow false ideas to be conveyed is to feed the serophobia that plays into the hands of the epidemic,” explains AIDES in its press release published in emergency on 20 January.

On Twitter, the president of Act Up-Paris, Marc-Antoine Bartoli, is moved and says that “aggression or “the attack on AIDS does not exist”. A few weeks ago Act Up New York had to deal with a similar case. It is important to remember that people who test positive for HIV have access to treatment that makes their viral load undetectable and cannot transmit HIV. First fact. The second is that, first and foremost, “the modes of contamination are sexual secretions, breast milk, blood. Saliva does not transmit HIV. Moreover, HIV has very low resistance to the open air. After five to ten seconds in the open air, a drop of blood no longer contains the virus,” AIDES recalls.

These simple indications would have deflated a Serophobic line of defence from the outset, continuing to play on irrational fears. “It is everyone’s responsibility to recall this information as soon as necessary. Without this, stigmatization and false beliefs will not be able to stop,” continues AIDES. And the media have their role to play in informing. This is what Fred Colby, a gay activist who is openly HIV-positive and committed to AIDES, is calling for: “People living with HIV are not walking viruses. People living with HIV are not walking viruses. The media needs to think before they publish this kind of thing or qualify it by talking about treatment and undetectable viral load. Without this prerequisite, this spitting case is likely to come back in the news, without any lessons being learned from the previous one. Again to the detriment of HIV-positive people.


Crachat et VIH : la violence des maux

À la suite de la diffusion d’une vidéo amateur, dans laquelle un policier interpelle et frappe violemment un manifestant, le porte-parole du syndicat de policiers Alliance affirmait, pour la défense de l’officier mis en cause, que la personne interpellée aurait craché du sang au visage du policier en disant : « J’ai le sida, tu vas crever ». Depuis, la victime réfute vivre avec le VIH et avoir menacé les policiers de « contamination » en leur crachant dessus. L’affaire a enflé dans certains médias, qui ont repris à leur compte les explications du syndicaliste de la police, sans pour autant dégonfler le sensationnalisme autour du « danger » d’un crachat d’une personne séropositive au VIH. Face à cela, de nombreux-ses militants-es de la lutte contre le sida et des associations de personnes vivant avec sont intervenus pour remettre les faits à leur place, peu importe la position sur les responsabilités en cours durant l’arrestation. « La rapidité de traitement de l’actualité implique régulièrement des approximations ou pire, de laisser la place à de fausses croyances. C’est particulièrement vrai concernant le VIH/sida. Or, laissez véhiculer de fausses idées, c’est nourrir la sérophobie qui fait le jeu de l’épidémie », explique AIDES dans son communiqué publié en urgence, le 20 janvier. Sur Twitter, le président d’Act Up-Paris, Marc-Antoine Bartoli, s’émeut et indique que « l’agression ou « l’attaque au sida n’existe pas ». Il y a quelques semaines Act up New-York a eu à faire à un cas similaire. Il est important de rappeler que les personnes dépistées séropositives ont accès à un traitement qui rend leur charge virale indétectable et ne peuvent pas transmette le VIH. Premier fait. Le second, c’est qu’avant toute chose, « les modes de contamination sont les sécrétions sexuelles, le lait maternel, le sang. La salive ne transmet pas le VIH. De plus, le VIH a une très faible résistance à l’air libre. Après cinq à dix secondes à l’air libre, une goutte de sang ne contient plus de virus », rappelle AIDES. Ces simples indications auraient permis de dégonfler d’emblée une ligne de défense sérophobe, continuant de jouer sur les peurs irrationnelles. « Il est de la responsabilité de toutes et tous de rappeler dès que nécessaires ces informations. Sans cela, les stigmatisations et fausses croyances ne pourront pas cesser », continue AIDES. Et les médias ont leur rôle d’information à jouer. C’est ce que réclame Fred Colby, activiste gay, ouvertement séropositif et engagé à AIDES: « Les personnes vivant avec le VIH ne sont pas des virus ambulants. Il faut que les médias réfléchissent avant de publier ce genre de choses ou nuancent en parlant du traitement et de la charge virale indétectable ». Sans ce préalable, cette affaire du crachat risque de revenir dans l’actualité, sans qu’aucune leçon ne soit tirée de la précédente. Au détriment, encore, des personnes séropositives.

US: Reporter fired for pushing misleading information in story about man who allegedly spat at Port Authority Officer

WCBS Fires Reporter for Pushing False HIV Fears in Arrest Story

TV outlet, Port Authority police union linked suspect’s alleged spitting to infection risk.

CBS New York confirmed to Gay City News that it has fired a reporter who stoked fear and pushed misinformation about HIV transmission in a story about the arrest of a man who allegedly spit at a Port Authority police officer.

CBS New York has fired a reporter they say was responsible for pushing insensitive and misleading narratives about HIV/ AIDS in a story that blew up on social media on December 8 and 9, a spokesperson confirmed to Gay City News.

As reported by Gay City News, the local CBS affiliate in New York published an article and social media posts implying that an HIV-positive man who allegedly spit on a Port Authority police officer was somehow putting the cop at risk for the virus, despite the fact that HIV cannot be transmitted by saliva.

The reporter described the alleged spitting incident as an “HIV ATTACK” in a tweet, and wrote in the article that the “suspect admitted they spit into an officer’s mouth knowing they had HIV.”

“This online story should not have been published,” CBS New York wrote to Gay City News in a written statement. “It does not meet our journalistic standards, nor does it reflect our core values. The person who wrote and published the story and social media post failed to review the copy with our news managers. This individual is no longer employed by CBS New York.”

A CBS New York spokesperson declined comment when asked, for purposes of transparency, who was fired. The article in question did not have a byline, though the name of one reporter, Tony Aiello, was listed under the “filed under” section of the article and drew attention from some folks on social media who believed he was behind the story. The spokesperson said he was not the reporter who was fired.

However, the other key piece of the story — that the Port Authority Police Benevolent Association (PAPBA) also pushed false claims about HIV and shared the suspect’s HIV status with CBS — remains unresolved. A union spokesperson interviewed by Gay City News on December 9 tried framing the man who allegedly spit on the officer as someone who tried using his HIV status as some sort of weapon.

“The problem is when a person with an infectious disease has a weapon, we have a problem with that,” said PAPBA public information officer Bob Egbert. “A guy who knowingly has an infectious disease — that’s a problem.”

The union has not apologized or retracted any comments, raising the likelihood that advocates who have strongly condemned the news story and the PAPBA comments will continue raising concerns and the controversy will continue to metastasize.

The stigmatization and misinformation infuriated the LGBTQ community and local advocacy organizations who reacted with shock and outrage toward CBS New York and the PAPBA when the article and tweets surfaced. On the afternoon of December 9, ACT UP NY, Bailey House, Gay Men’s Health Crisis, Housing Works, and VOCAL-NY were among those who vowed to raise their concerns in a demonstration at CBS headquarters in Manhattan on December 10.