International Women’s Day 2013: Empowering Women Living with HIV

Celebrate International Women’s Day with almost one million Indian women living with HIV.  (Photo © 2012 Prashant Panjiar for India HIV/AIDS Alliance)

Celebrate International Women’s Day with almost one million Indian women living with HIV. (Photo © 2012 Prashant Panjiar for India HIV/AIDS Alliance)

International Women’s Day was first officially observed in 1911 and remains an annual opportunity to call for change and celebrate the many acts of courage and determination by ordinary women who play an extraordinary role in the world’s future.

It’s hardly been three months since India came to a standstill after the gruesome gang rape in New Delhi. The incident generated national and international attention and was condemned in India and abroad. It has left us determined to find answers to difficult but basic questions: Are India’s women really safe, both inside and outside their homes? Can they celebrate their freedom? How can we ensure that all women are able to pursue their dreams?

Over the years, considerable effort has gone into social, political and economic empowerment of women, but progress has been too slow. For women living with HIV (WLHIV) in India, the challenges are multiple. These women encounter daily stigma & discrimination and face barriers to accessing HIV prevention, treatment and care as well as sexual and reproductive health (SRH) services. WLHIV often lack status and decision-making power and have inadequate control over financial resources and limited mobility to travel to find better jobs. Even today, laws and policies impede their access to health care and other services.

Though the sexual reproductive health and rights of people living with HIV (PLHIV) remain largely unrealized in this country, India HIV/AIDS Alliance is working to address some of the issues faced by WLHIV through our Koshish Project. With financial support from European Commission, Koshish affirms the principles of empowerment and partnership as core strategies to tackle the problems faced by these women, including stigma & discrimination, inaccessibility and non-availability of services and the lack of comprehensive SRH for PLHIV.

Through partners in Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu including PLHIV networks in these states, Koshish works with providers and decision-makers to help make barrier-free services available and formulate sensitive and progressive policies for PLHIV and key populations. Programme partners have proactively engaged these stakeholders to advocate for quality SRH services. Advocacy has focussed on issues like maternal health services for WLHIV, cervical cancer screening, quality counselling and increased awareness of SRH and rights.

It is a now time for us to look ahead and celebrate the untapped potential and opportunities that await future generations of women including WLHIV. As we enjoy the song One Woman  to be released by UN on this International Women’s Day, let us dedicate our time and resources and pledge our commitment to WLHIV by mobilizing and empowering them and jointly advocating for their rights and needs in India and all over the world.

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The author of this post, Kumkum Pal, is Programme Officer for Alliance India’s Koshish programme.

Alliance India works closely with PLHIV in India through its Koshish programme which aims to strengthen civil society organisations and networks that represent and work with PLHIV and other marginalised groups, such as MSM, transgenders, sex workers and IDUs, to effectively advocate for policies to improve the sexual & reproductive health and rights (SRHR) of PLHIV in India. This project is funded by the European Commission and is implemented in partnership with MAMTA, PWDS, VMM and CHETNA, along with state-level networks for PLHIV in Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat.

The right to live and love: HIV and the Law

The Global Commission on HIV and the Law has launched its much awaited report “Risks, Rights & Health”. JVR Prasada Rao, one of the trustees of the India HIV/AIDS Alliance and the incoming UN Secretary-General Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in the Asia-Pacific region, served as one of the Commissioners. The report is a useful resource for many countries, including India, and will help strengthen the on-going process of progressive law reform and improved enforcement of existing laws.

Although India’s national AIDS control programme supports an approach that ensures the protection of rights as a key element in successfully addressing HIV/AIDS, it often does not have the sanction of law in its work with high-risk but criminalised populations like sex workers and people who use drugs. HIV interventions for men who have sex with men (MSM) and transgender populations in India have benefitted from the 2009 Delhi High Court ruling decriminalising homosexuality, even as we await a final ruling from the Indian Supreme Court. While there has been some progress, Alliance India’s work with each of these groups as well as with people living with HIV/AIDS (PLHIV) in states across the country often takes place in the face of significant social stigma that is reinforced by an ambiguous and often punitive legal environment.

To build and sustain our momentum against the epidemic, the Commission’s report recommends decriminalizing private and consensual adult sexual behaviours, including same-sex sexual acts and voluntary sex work. It also advises governments to reform how they address drug use, including support for harm reduction programming and voluntary, evidence-based treatment for drug dependence. It’s encouraging to see these goals articulated in the report along with the recommendation to develop a legal regime for pharmaceutical patents to make ART affordable and accessible for PLHIV.  Laws are critical in holding states accountable in their responsibility to create conditions conducive to the enjoyment and exercise of fundamental rights. To that end, the Commission’s report points us in the right direction.

It is, however, not enough to think of the HIV and the Law report in simply a functional way, as good legal practice; rather it can serve as a mechanism to achieve social equity, justice, and health for all. The barriers created by inequality and discrimination limit access and undermine wellbeing. Progress requires efforts both to address discrimination itself and increase access as well as to promote legal and structural transformation.

Formulating policies and legal strategies to improve our response to HIV & AIDS demands a rights-based approach that will foster appropriate and ethical solutions to the legal and often political dilemmas raised by the epidemic while maintaining longer-term goals to transform systems of power to be more equitable. “Risks, Rights & Health” provides a road map and makes a compelling case that our journey will not be completed if we ignore the legal contexts that continue to fuel the epidemic.

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The author, Shaleen Rakesh, is  Director: Technical Support, India HIV/AIDS Alliance

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