A medical cure to HIV/AIDS may be a far cry, but the legal framework of a nation could go a long way in making HIV response effective. This was observed by Helen Clark, administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), at the International AIDS Conference held in Melbourne on Tuesday. The conference, which is on till July 25, is projected as the world’s largest gathering of HIV researchers, policymakers, activists and people living with HIV.
During her speech to parliamentarians at UNDP, Clark cited the 2013 UNAIDS report on HIV and AIDS in Asia and the Pacific and noted that while progress has been made in the region to control the epidemic, significant challenges remain. According to the report, an estimated 4.9 million people in the region were living with HIV in 2012.
Clark emphasised the importance of openness and transparency of the legal systems in a country to prevent discrimination towards HIV positive people. “Many countries in the region have laws, policies and practices which drive stigma and discrimination and hamper access to HIV services,” she said, and added that 37 countries in the region criminalise some aspects of sex work, 18 countries criminalise same-sex behaviour and 11 countries incarcerate injecting drug users in compulsory drug detention centres. All these measures hinder people from accessing HIV services, she says.
She gives the example of New Zealand to show how significant changes in the country’s statute book have brought down the prevalence of HIV among adults. Some of these measures, taken between 1981 and 2008, include criminalisation of marital rape, decriminalisation of sex work, inclusion of sexual orientation and disability to the anti-discrimination legislation and access of condoms to prison inmates.
Fiji, Vietnam and Mongolia have taken similar action to introduce rights-based legislation to strengthen response to HIV/AIDS. Clark urged parliamentarians to exercise their law-making oversight to help improve their countries’ national response to the disease. “It is through creative and courageous parliamentary actions, by government and opposition legislators, that we will be able to address the effects of HIV/AIDS in different countries,” she said.
Currently, UNDP collaborates with 63 countries—18 of them in the Asia Pacific region—on tackling HIV. Some of the countries are Botswana, Ethiopia, Jamaica, Lebanon and Myanmar. Collaborative efforts include increasing parliamentarians’ understanding of HIV, following up on implementation of the government’s HIV policy and providing technical support for the drafting of legislation which ensures the protection and rights of the people living with HIV. In Myanmar, UNDP supported the parliament in developing a “Quick Win” action plan which focuses on key areas, such as the development of new guidance on HIV-related discrimination and confidentiality, universal antiretroviral access, reproductive rights of HIV-positive women and access to affordable medicines.
She concluded her speech by emphasising on leadership to combat AIDS. “Addressing stigma and discrimination must also involve education, a responsible media and engaged civil society. But exercising legislative leadership is a critical way of achieving change, especially where the change may be controversial or unpopular,” she said.
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