Uganda: Aids Response Must Be Guided By Human Rights

28 Aug

http://allafrica.com

In Uganda and across Africa, HIV continues to prey on women, sex workers and men, who have sex with men.

It is clear that to end the HIV epidemic, we must protect and support these groups. Yet, our country and others enforce bad laws and customs that disempower these groups and make them more likely to be infected with HIV. We cannot hope for an HIV-free generation when we have laws that marginalize and punish those most vulnerable to the disease.

A global commission of legal, human rights and HIV leaders recently released a report that showed punitive laws were standing in the way of effective AIDS responses. Archaic laws and customs make women and girls more vulnerable to HIV. Legally condoned violence and oppression – including genital mutilation, sexual violence, denial of property rights and early marriage – undermine the ability of women to protect themselves.

Laws urgently need to protect women, who are often the ones left to care for the sick, tend to the family and till the fields. In addition, many countries have punitive laws that criminalize sex workers. However, these laws drive sex work underground and put sex workers at greater risk of HIV.

Police violence and the threat of arrest disempower sex workers, making them more vulnerable to abuse and HIV transmission. Many are unable to access prevention and care because of the stigma they face, even from healthcare workers. In contrast, sex workers who are not harassed by the police and who have access to services have lower HIV rates and more economic power.

Laws across the continent also criminalize homosexuality, yet punishing men who have sex with men forces them into secrecy. They are unable to access counseling and testing, making it almost impossible for HIV prevention and treatment interventions to reach them.

In 2008, when the Senegalese government jailed nine gay HIV outreach workers under a law prohibiting “acts against nature,” health workers went into hiding, advocacy groups disbanded and HIV treatment sites were shut down.

The time has come for African leaders to take action against bad laws that stifle our HIV response. We must challenge societal values rooted in fear and prejudice and implement laws based on human rights and sound public health. This starts with recognizing the rights of women and decriminalizing homosexuality and voluntary sex work, which is vital to protecting the health and dignity of these groups.

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