2022 in review: A turning point for HIV justice?

Looking back on all that happened in 2022, we are cautiously optimistic that 2022 will be seen as a turning point in the global movement to end HIV criminalisation. We celebrated promising developments in case law, law reform and policy in many countries and jurisdictions over the past year, building on the momentum of 2021. Although there is much more work yet to do, it’s clear that progress is being made — thanks primarily to the leadership of people living with HIV.

Continuing a trend that began two years ago, overall there seems to have been a decline in the number of HIV-related prosecutions. This year we identified media reports of 49 new HIV criminalisation cases in 16 countries plus seven US states. This compares to 54 new cases in 20 countries last year (which was still fewer than reported in previous years). This year, the highest number of case reports came from Russia, followed by the United States (with multiple cases in the state of Florida), and France

It is possible that we are seeing fewer media reports because there are actually fewer cases, but we must always consider these known cases to be illustrative of what is likely a more widespread, poorly documented use of criminal law against people living with HIV. The media, public health authorities and law enforcement may still be distracted by the global financial crisis precipitated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the impact of COVID-19 — a pandemic that continues to disproportionately impact people living with HIV.

After being near the top in previous years, Belarus has been bumped off the ‘most cases’ list. Last year, the Belarus Investigative Committee reported 34 new HIV-related criminal cases. It’s highly likely that this year there were some (unreported) cases, but it’s also clear that the number of cases has been slowing down since 2020, possibly due to ongoing discussions with the government to limit the use of the criminal law.

Canada used to be a global leader in HIV criminalisation, but no new cases were reported this year. In fact, the only case reports from Canada were about the overturning of a conviction by the Ontario Court of Appeal after it accepted there was no realistic possibility of transmission as the accused woman had an undetectable viral load, and another Ontario Court of Appeal acquittal based on the accused man’s elite controller status. These positive rulings follow many years of sustained advocacy, which has also led to the federal government opening a public consultation on reforming the criminal law. The Canadian Coalition to Reform HIV Criminalization has welcomed this consultation as a first step to concrete action on law reform.

Earlier this year, Taiwan’s Supreme Court also recognised the prevention benefit of treatment by upholding the acquittal of a man with an undetectable viral load who was accused of alleged HIV exposure. But elsewhere in Asia, Singapore continues to unjustly prosecute gay men living with HIV under draconian laws, despite being celebrated for recently repealing their colonial-era law that criminalised sex between men. Singapore is also the world leader in prosecuting gay men for not disclosing a possible HIV risk before donating blood. That’s why we issued our Bad Blood report in September, which concludes that the criminalisation of blood donations by people with HIV is a disproportionate measure — the result of both HIV-related stigma and homophobia, and not supported by science.

In the United States, we continued to see a reduction in the number of states with HIV-specific criminal laws thanks to the ongoing advocacy by networks of people living with HIV supported by human rights and public health organisations. In 2022, Georgia modernised its law and New Jersey became the third US state to fully repeal its HIV-specific criminal law. President Biden again highlighted HIV criminalisation in his World AIDS Day proclamation stating that “outdated laws have no basis in science, and they serve to discourage testing and further marginalize HIV-positive people.” In October, the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS unanimously passed an historic resolution on molecular HIV surveillance that will be critical to protecting the human rights and dignity of people living with HIV. But problematic new laws continue to be enacted despite strong opposition from civil society. In November, Pennsylvania’s Governor, Tom Wolf, signed into law an overly broad, unscientific statute that makes it a felony to pass on a communicable disease, including HIV, when someone “should have known” they had the disease.

There was also mixed news from the African continent. In March, Zimbabwe became the second African country to repeal its HIV-specific law (the Democratic Republic of Congo repealed its law in 2018). This victory is testament to the effectiveness of a multi-year, multi-stakeholder campaign that began with civil society advocates sensitising communities and parliamentarians, notably the Honourable Dr Ruth Labode, Chairperson of Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Health and Child Care. She began pushing for a change in the law in 2018, having previously been in favour of the provision which she thought protected her female constituents. And in October, the Central African Republic also enacted a new HIV law that focused primarily on social protections for people living with HIV, without any criminalising provisions.

Also in October, the Lesotho High Court issued a positive judgment following a constitutional challenge to sections of the Sexual Offences Act that impose a mandatory death sentence on persons convicted of sexual offences if they were living with HIV.  Following interventions from members of the HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE coalition and others, the Court ruled that people living with HIV have the same right to life as all others — and commuted the sentence.

The news elsewhere on the continent, however, wasn’t so positive. After six years of waiting, a constitutional challenge to some of the most problematic, criminalising sections of Uganda’s HIV/AIDS Prevention and Control Act was dismissed outright in November. We are anxiously awaiting the ruling in a similar challenge in neighbouring Kenya. It was filed five years ago and has since been postponed several times. This year, we also lost Ugandan nurse and HIV criminalisation survivor, Rosemary Namubiru, who was a posthumous recipient of the Elizabeth Taylor Legacy Award at this year’s International AIDS Conference.

Women — who were accused in around 25% of all newly reported cases this year — also face criminal prosecution in relation to breastfeeding or comfort nursing, mostly across the African continent. In addition, women living with HIV continue to be threatened with punitive public health processes and child protection interventions for breastfeeding their children in multiple countries. That’s why this year we created the short film, Mwayi’s Story, to highlight the injustice and facilitate discussion about HIV and breastfeeding. We also worked with our HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE coalition partners to publish a paper in the peer-reviewed, open access journal Therapeutic Advances in Infectious Diseases to highlight these problematic and unjust approaches to women with HIV who breastfeed or comfort nurse.

This year, we learned from the Eurasian Women’s Network on AIDS, working with the Global Network of People Living with HIV, about how women living with HIV are both disproportionately impacted by HIV criminalisation across the Eastern Europe and Central Asia (EECA) region and also leaders in research, advocacy and activism against it. Their report illustrates how HIV criminalisation and gender inequality are intimately and inextricably linked. Case studies include a woman in Russia who was prosecuted for breastfeeding her baby and several women in Russia who were blackmailed by former partners who threatened to report them for alleged HIV exposure as a way to control, coerce, or abuse them.

The disproportionate impact of HIV criminalisation on women was also the focus of a World AIDS Day statement by the Organization of American States (OAS) calling on Member States to end HIV criminalisation. Earlier in the year, Argentina had enacted a new, comprehensive and non-punitive HIV, STI and TB law

Nevertheless, there is still so much more to do to reach the global target of fewer than 10% of countries with punitive laws and policies that negatively impact the HIV response. To keep up the momentum, we continued to produce reports and analysis — including our flagship Advancing HIV Justice 4: Understanding Commonalities, Seizing Opportunities — as well as contributed to peer-reviewed journal articles, such as So many harms, so little benefit in the Lancet HIV and Punishing vulnerability through HIV criminalization in the American Journal of Public Health. We’re also doing our best to ensure we change the media narrative on HIV criminalisation, including by contributing to The Guardian’s World AIDS Day podcast on HIV criminalisation.

Our greatest achievement this year was the creation of the HIV Justice Academy. We are very proud of this online platform for e-learning and training which we believe will be a catalyst in building the wider movement to end punitive laws and policies that impact people living with HIV in all their diversity. Already available in English and French, we’ll be launching in Spanish and Russian early next year.

Did we turn the corner in 2022? Only time will tell, but if there is one thing we know for sure it is that changing hearts and minds with respect to HIV criminalisation is a long road with many ups and downs along the way. We know that important progress was made in 2022 and that we begin 2023 with fresh analysis, new tools and a renewed spirit of solidarity.

Lesotho high court finds imposition of death sentence solely on the basis of HIV status unconstitutional

Court decision upholds that people living with HIV have the same right to life as all others

Joint news release from the Southern Africa Litigation Centre, AIDS and Rights Alliance for Southern Africa, Lesotho Network of People Living with HIV and AIDS, HIV Legal Network and HIV Justice Network

 

On 25 October 2022, the High Court of Lesotho in the case of MK v Director of Public Prosecutions and Others issued a judgment on a constitutional challenge to certain sections of the Sexual Offences Act that impose mandatory HIV testing on persons accused of sexual offences, and subsequently impose a death sentence on persons convicted of sexual offences solely based on their HIV-positive status.

The case was supported by the Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC), AIDS and Rights Alliance for Southern Africa (ARASA), HIV Legal Network – all members of HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE (HJWW) Steering Committee coordinated by the HIV Justice Network (HJN) – as well as Kenya Legal & Ethical Issues Network on HIV and AIDS (KELIN). Lesotho Network of People Living with HIV and AIDS (LENEPWHA) was admitted as Amicus Curiae. The petitioner and Amicus Curiae were represented by Advocate Molati, Advocate Mokhathali, Advocate Masaeso, Advocate Mohau (K.C) and Advocate Letuka.

The petitioner challenged the constitutionality of section 32(a)(vii) of the Sexual Offences Act which appeared to impose a mandatory death sentence on people convicted of sexual offences who were HIV-positive and were aware of their status. The petitioner also challenged section 30 of the Act, which requires mandatory HIV testing for persons arrested and charged under the Act. The petitioner argued that the imposition of a mandatory death sentence solely on the grounds of HIV status, and mandatory HIV testing upon arrest, breached the constitutional rights to life, equality and non-discrimination, equal protection of the law, privacy, and dignity and that they contribute to stigma against people living with HIV.

In a judgment written by Justice Makara, the High Court, sitting as a Constitutional Court, declared that section 32(a)(vii) of the Sexual Offences Act was unconstitutional to the extent that it imposes a death sentence solely on the basis of a person’s HIV status, as this was discriminatory and amounted to inhumane treatment. The Court said that people convicted of sexual offences should be sentenced according to the mitigating or aggravating circumstances rather than HIV status alone, and that the law should be interpreted so as not to require a mandatory death sentence for a person living with HIV.

“People living with HIV have the right to life, as all people do. Imposing the death penalty based on a person’s HIV-positive status is the most extreme form of discrimination possible. We welcome the Lesotho High Court’s decision to end this terrible human rights violation.” Edwin J Bernard, HIV Justice Network, global coordinator, HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE.

“While recognizing the serious impact of sexual violence, the judgment is an acknowledgment that the over-broad use of criminal laws and sanctions solely based on HIV status is unjust and not justified by a scientific and human-rights based approach” Maketekete Alfred Thotolo, Executive Director, LENEPWHA.

 

Download the pdf of the news release here

 

Advancing HIV Justice 4: new report highlights more successes, continued challenges

A new report published today (July 22nd 2022) by the HIV Justice Network (HJN) on behalf of HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE shows that the global movement to end HIV criminalisation continues to achieve remarkable successes, despite the many challenges that COVID-19 has brought.

Advancing HIV Justice 4: Understanding Commonalities, Seizing Opportunities provides a progress report of achievements and challenges in global advocacy against HIV criminalisation. The report generally covers a three year period ending 31 December 2021 where Advancing HIV Justice 3 ended. However, significant law reform developments that took place in the first quarter of 2022 are also included in report’s maps and analysis.

The successes

During the reporting period, four HIV criminalisation laws were repealed; another HIV criminalisation law was found to be unconstitutional; and six laws were ‘modernised’ (i.e. applied up-to-date science on HIV-related risk or harm and/or legal and human rights principles to limit the application of the law) five of which were in the United States.

In addition, we saw precedent-setting cases in four countries and policy recommendations or improvements in four further countries — all of which have the potential to limit the overly broad application of the law to people living with HIV based on HIV-positive status.

While legislative processes slowed down or stalled in some places due to COVID-19 diminishing capacity for advocacy, more HIV criminalisation laws were modernised or repealed in the United States than during any other time period, the realisation of a maturing PLHIV-led HIV decriminalisation movement that began a decade or more ago.

These outcomes were primarily due to sustained advocacy – most of it led by PLHIV networks working with allies – using a wide range of strategies. These are analysed in the report by HJN’s senior policy analyst, Alison Symington.

The challenges

However, too many HIV criminalisation cases and continued high numbers of HIV-related criminal laws continue to be of great concern, requiring more attention, co-ordinated advocacy, and funding.

Our global audit of HIV-related laws found that a total of 82 countries (111 jurisdictions) have criminal laws that are HIV-specific. Of those, we are aware of 52 jurisdictions in 35 countries that have applied their HIV-specific criminal laws.

Another 89 jurisdictions in 48 countries have applied non-HIV-specific, general criminal laws in an overly broad manner since the first prosecution in 1986.

Our case analysis shows that HIV criminalisation continues to disproportionately impact women, racial and ethnic minorities, migrants, gay men and other men who have sex with men, transgender people, and sex workers.

Although the total number of cases has diminished in some US states as well as in countries that were previously HIV criminalisation hotspots – Canada, Czech Republic, Norway, Sweden, and Zimbabwe – too many unjust prosecutions and convictions continue to be reported.

During the reporting period, we recorded 275 cases in HJN’s Global HIV Criminalisation Database. However, when we include case numbers from several Eastern European and Central Asian countries that provide official data, we estimate almost 700 criminal cases over the reporting period.

Notwithstanding the limitations of tabulating cases globally, the highest number of reported cases during the period covered by this report were in:

The report is available to download in English, French, Russian and Spanish. 

Acknowlegements

Advancing HIV Justice 4 was conceived and edited by HJN’s executive director, Edwin J Bernard, and HJN’s senior policy analyst, Alison Symington. Alison Symington researched and wrote all chapters except for ‘Global Overview’, which was researched and written by Edwin J Bernard, using data collected by Sylvie Beaumont and analysed by Tenesha Myrie.

Additional input was provided by: Gonzalo Aburto (The Sero Project), India Annamanthadoo (HIV Legal Network), Stephen Barris (Ex Aequo), Sophie Brion (International Community of Women Living with HIV), Janet Butler-McPhee (HIV Legal Network), Nyasha Chingore-Munazvo (AIDS and Rights Alliance for Southern Africa), Kenechukwu Esom (United Nations Development Programme), Elie Georges Ballan (The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS – UNAIDS), Alfredo González (Hondureños Contra el SIDA), Julian Hows (HIV Justice Network), Deidre Johnson (Ending Criminalization of HIV and Overincarceration in Virginia Coalition), Cécile Kazatchkine (HIV Legal Network), Svitlana Moroz (Eurasian Women’s Network on AIDS), Immaculate Owomugisha Bazare (Uganda Network on Law Ethics and HIV/AIDS), Stephen Page (Nevada HIV Modernization Coalition), Cedric Pulliam (Ending Criminalization of HIV and Overincarceration in Virginia Coalition), Florence Riako Anam (Global Network of People Living with HIV), Mianko Ramaroson (The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS – UNAIDS), Demario Richardson (Missouri HIV Justice Coalition), Sean Strub (The Sero Project), and Alexandra Volgina (Global Network of People Living with HIV).

We would especially like to acknowledge the courage and commitment of the growing number of people living with HIV and allies around the world who are challenging laws, policies and practices that inappropriately regulate and punish people living with HIV. Without them, this report — and the victories reported herein — would not have been possible.

We gratefully acknowledge the financial contribution of the Robert Carr Fund to this report.

Mwayi’s Story: a short film about courage,
women’s rights, and HIV justice

Today we are delighted to share with the world a new short film, Mwayi’s Story, produced by the HIV Justice Network on behalf of HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE.

Mwayi’s Story is a story about courage, and about women standing up for their rights. The film is based on the story of a woman in Malawi who was prosecuted for briefly breastfeeding another woman’s baby and the subsequent successful advocacy in Malawi to prevent an HIV criminalisation statute being passed.

Ultimately, Mwayi’s Story is about HIV justice!

We wanted to produce a film that was authentic to the lived experience of an HIV criminalisation survivor but without making her go through the trauma of having to relive the experience by telling her story again.

HJN’s video, visuals and webshows consultant, Nicholas Feustel, who produced and directed the film, said: “Since this story is primarily about mothers and children, we decided to produce the film in the style of an illustrated children’s storybook. We searched for a female illustrator working in sub-Saharan Africa and found the wonderful Phathu Nembilwi of Phathu Designs.

“For our narrator, we found Upile Chisala, a storyteller from Malawi known for her short and powerful poems.”

The script by HJN’s Senior Policy Analyst, Alison Symington, was written in consultation with our Supervisory Board member, Sarai Chisala-Tempelhoff, a Malawian human rights lawyer and legal researcher with over 15 years of experience in women’s access to justice.

We also worked with our HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE partners, Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC) and AIDS and Rights Alliance for Southern Africa (ARASA), to ensure that the film was relevant to their ongoing advocacy in the region. In fact, Mwayi’s Story had its world premiere last week on Zambia’s Diamond TV, in anticipation of a verdict in a similar breastfeeding case.

The film will be shown in a number of forums over the next few months, including at AIDS 2022. It will soon be subtitled in French, Russian and Spanish, and we are also looking for partners to translate additional subtitles if they think the film can be useful in their own advocacy. If you’re interested you can get in touch with us at breastfeeding@hivjustice.net. We will send you the English subtitle file for translation. After you return the file to us, we will upload it to YouTube.

Mwayi’s Story is part of our ongoing work to end the criminalisation of women living with HIV for breastfeeding and comfort nursing, including our Breastfeeding Defence Toolkit. It is our goal to collaborate with advocates, researchers, service providers, organisations and community members around the world to raise awareness and prevent further unjust prosecutions against women living with HIV who breastfeed or comfort nurse. We are grateful to both the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation and the Robert Carr Fund for their financial support for this work, and this film.

UPDATE: Speakers now confirmed for #BeyondBlame2021!

REGISTER HERE

Beyond Blame, our flagship meeting for activists, human rights defenders, criminal legal system and public health system actors, healthcare professionals, researchers, and anyone else working to end HIV criminalisation, is returning for a special eve-of-World AIDS Day edition.

Following the success of last year’s Beyond Blame @ HIV2020, which was reimagined as a two-hour web show, the HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE coalition is delighted to announce that Beyond Blame: Challenging Criminalisation for HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE will take place on Tuesday, November 30, 2021, from 6-8 PM Central European Time. Check this link to find the event in your local time.

REGISTER HERE

Beyond Blame is a unique opportunity to learn why HIV criminalisation matters, as well as hear about the wide range of initiatives and strategies that have been used by activists, lawyers, networks, and organisations around the world to work towards ending the inappropriate use of criminal law to regulate and punish people living with HIV.

We will be highlighting some of the successes and challenges of the global movement to end HIV criminalisation over the past year, including work on ending the criminalisation of women living with HIV for breastfeeding, exploring whether scientific advances, such as the prevention benefit of treatment (U=U) and Molecular HIV Surveillance, help or hinder our movement and much, much more.

Beyond Blame will take place in English, with interpretation available in French, Russian and Spanish.

Follow the conversation on Twitter via #BeyondBlame2021 #HIVJustice

REGISTER HERE

[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.     

Learn how to challenge HIV criminalisation in Africa

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

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

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

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

You can apply for the course here.

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

Successful applicants will be notified by 2 September 2021.

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

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

Illinois fully repeals its HIV criminalisation law

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A landmark week for HIV criminalisation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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