Hey Governments! Remember the Red Ribbon? Put It Back On!

Today is World AIDS Day, a day where everyone is invited to reflect on HIV and AIDS, and the impact the pandemy has had so far on humanity as a whole.

This year’s thematic for WAD is Universal Access and Human Rights. Universal Access means universal access to the Anti-RetroVirals, a combination of drugs that, when accessible, allow HIV positive people to live longer and better lives. If the body of the patient responds well to the treatment, the rate of the virus in the blood can get to a level so low, it’s not detectable in blood tests anymore. According to the Guttmacher Institute, the number of people who had been able to access treatment globally rose from 700 000 in 2004 to 5.2 millions globally, which is a fantastic result and a good indicator of the efforts that have been brought forward to meet this goal, all the more because Universal Access is Target 6.B under the general Millenium Development Goal “Combat HIV and AIDS”. However, it is important to carry on with these efforts and to urge governments to maintain a certain level of funding in order to ensure the sustainability of this increase. Indeed, the last World AIDS Conference that took place in Vienna in August this year raised the concern of a decline in funding from governments and a slowing down in the commitment of public powers to support the fight against HIV, leading the Global Fund to fight Against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria to organise a campaign to raise awareness in the general public and encourage governments not to cut back on their health and development budgets.
The ever growing number of people living positively longer lives also raises the issue of their Human Rights. Indeed, a whole array of topics unfolds when speaking about living positively, from the threat of criminalisation of HIV positive people, to sexual and reproductive health and rights of HIV+ people, to the issues of stigma and discrimination. For example, many HIV positive women, notably in Southern Africa and South America, have faced forced sterilisation: women would come to a clinic to deliver their baby or for other gynecological examination, and the doctor would either sterilise them withour their knowing or consent, or make them sign a paper which they did not understand properly, or taking advantage of the fact that they can’t read, in gross violations of the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the interdiction to be submitted to inhuman and degrading treatments (PCPR, CAT). Issues of criminalisation of HIV transmission has to be handled with great care as there is a need to differentiate the intentional transmission of the virus to a negative person with the accidental transmission, which can occur when the person is not aware of his or her status or when the condom has broken. In any case, it is very difficult to prove intentional transmission of the virus, and the current “trend” to put all the blame and responsibility for consentual sexual relations on HIV  positive people is a worrying and dangerous one. Stigma and discrimination affect HIV+ people in all areas of their lives, and especially women, who more often than not see themselves cast off societies, blamed and beaten for disclosing their status. HIV still comes in the minds of people with a lot of fantasies and fears, as it relates so much with other taboo issues, such as sex, drug use or homosexuality. This is why in my opinion, a comprehensive approach to awareness raising is needed, as you can’t stop stigma and discrimination towards people living with HIV without stopping discrimination towards women, Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transsexuals, sex workers or injecting drug users.
In Lebanon, in 2007, 26% of people who needed treatment actually received it (even though the government provides it for free, supplies do not meet needs), for Egypt, this number was only 9%, and data was not available for Syria, Jordan and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. In terms of discrimination, in Lebanon there are HIV-related travel restrictions, laws that criminalise same sex activities as well as laws that are obstacles for key populations. However, data also shows that there are non-governmental organisations that are implementing programmes for people living with HIV as well as programmes to stop discrimination and stigma against them. It seems that it’s high time for the government to follow these actions. The same situation applies to Syria, where these laws are also in place, but on top of them sex work is criminalised and there are no initatives protecting PLHIV. The situation seems more or less the same in each country of the Middle East, with little or not government initatives or laws aiming at reducing stigma and discrimination towards key populations or laws protecting PLHIVs.

On World AIDS Day, what don’t we take two minutes to tell a friend, a co-worker or a parent about the need of an inclusive society that doesn’t criminalise and points at, but rather welcomes and cares? This would go not only for HIV+ people but also for other communities now wouldn’t it?

Some Sources
http://endforcedsterilisation.wordpress.com/ (forced sterilisation)
http://www.avert.org/criminal-transmission.htm (criminalisation of transmission)
http://cfs.unaids.org/ (UNAIDS Country Fact Sheets, HIGHLY helpful)
http://www.avert.org/media/pdfs/aids-drug-access.pdf (drugs access table)

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