International Human Rights Day 2013: Reflections on Rights Situation of PLHIV and Key Populations in India

HRD_blogSince the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, there has been a slow but steady expansion of international agreements that promote and protect the rights and dignity of all people everywhere. But even today, people living with HIV (PLHIV) and members of key population groups, such as men who have sex with men, transgenders, hijras, people who inject drugs and sex workers, continue to face violations to their basic rights. They are denied recognition in society, face barriers in accessing basic services like healthcare and education, and are often victims of violence and other forms of discrimination and marginalization.

Protection and fulfilment of the human rights of vulnerable communities are at the core of India HIV/AIDS Alliance’s work. Although the full enjoyment of their rights remains a dream for too many people, there are stories of hope and courage. This Human Rights Day take a look at some of the challenges facing India and how we’re responding:

The Other Epidemic: Gender-based Violence in India

Gender-based violence is an epidemic facing India and the world, and like AIDS, it will require a sustained and committed effort to overcome. Attitudes must change. We must never tolerate violence against women and girls. We must never be blind to gender’s diversity. Read more.

Fighting for the Right to Health for Women Living with HIV: A Success in Gujarat

Stigma and discrimination remain among the primary barriers to achieving universal access to HIV treatment, care, and prevention. As HIV treatment programmes become increasingly available, access to these lifesaving services depends on the degree to which all health facilities welcome PLHIV and respect their rights. Read more.

Confronting Quackery, Demanding Care: India’s Hijras Seek Access to Sex Reassignment Surgery Services

India’s hijra community routinely experiences mistreatment at the hands of doctors and the health system. Progress is slow and often only as a result of significant advocacy by community organisations. Hijras and transgenders have the same right to health as any other citizen, and the government must act to protect their lives. Read more.

Confidentiality: A Health and Human Rights Issue for PLHIV

There is nothing more angering than the thought of stigma faced by people living with HIV (PLHIV). Take, for example, the situation where numerous PLHIV had their HIV status published on the front page of their medical history records, making confidential information available to anyone who glanced at their files. Read more.  

The Pain of Being ‘the Other’: How Stigma Fuels HIV/AIDS among People Who Inject Drugs in India

The vulnerability of people who inject drugs (PWID) is further fuelled by the fact that society perceives drug users as criminals and a threat to society. This makes it difficult for people who want to reach out to them to build rapport and trust. This demonization further fuels the HIV epidemic in the country. Read more.

Shedding Light on Abuse: Alliance India study shows that almost 50% of women who inject drugs in Manipur report harassment and abuse from community members

A study conducted by Alliance India sheds light on the extent of the social discrimination and isolation experienced by women who inject drugs in Manipur. The lack of a support system in the lives of women who inject drugs significantly increases their isolation and likelihood of engaging in sex work as a means of earning a living. Read more.

A Beacon of Hope in the Fight Against Child Marriage: One Girl’s Story

The issue of child marriage is a very common problem in Allahabad in the conservative Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Here, girls are married early and are expected to bear children soon after.  Issues such as contraception, sexually transmitted infections, and reproductive rights of young people are met with a wall of silence. Read more.

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Their Voices Count: Stand with PLHIV on Human Rights Day!

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Even after more than two decades of a coordinated national response to HIV/AIDS in India, stigma and discrimination towards people living with HIV (PLHIV) remain commonplace. These forces—and the violence and other rights violations that often accompany them—undermine the efforts of the government, civil society, and donors to mount a truly effective response to the epidemic.

December 10th is Human Rights Day. It is an opportunity to advocate for the full enjoyment of human rights by all people everywhere. This year’s theme is ‘My Voice Counts.’ For those of us working to address HIV/AIDS, it’s a moment to reflect on progress but also on how much more work remains. Just a few days ago, an incident took place in Jodhpur, Rajasthan that illustrates how far we still need to travel.

A couple living with HIV received regular support from a local NGO. A staff member from the NGO made a home visit and, while enquiring about the address of their house, inadvertently revealed that the couple was HIV-positive. Neighbors beat the couple and threw them out of their home. Presently, they are living on the streets. (The Deccan Herald reported on this incident in their November 30th issue.)

HIV was first identified in India in 1986. After more than 26 years of rigorous efforts to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS and increase understanding of the disease, our efforts to reduce stigma and discrimination remain inadequate as the Jodhpur case shows. While there are pockets of progress, the majority of the 2.4 million PLHIV in India still live in fear of being harassed, humiliated, stigmatized, beaten, and disowned.

The despicable treatment of the couple in Jodhpur was covered by the media, but numerous other such situations go unrecorded. What should our leaders do? What steps are needed to truly address the ignorance and fear that drives neighbors to hurt not help? The Supreme Court of India ruled that PLHIV are assured a right to treatment, but why are we so indifferent about protecting the right of PLHIV to lead full and productive lives?

The National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO) recognizes the important role that rights protections play in the AIDS response. NACO has a ‘Know Your Rights’ page on its website, but do PLHIV really know what measures they can take to protect themselves when faced with violations of their basic rights? And if they do, what happens when they stand up for themselves?

In early November, a group of 70 PLHIV walked into Bihar State AIDS Control Society to demand a meeting. The crowd was angry as there had been an interruption in the supply of antiretroviral drugs in the state. Such gaps can significantly undermine the effectiveness of treatment and lead to drug resistance. The group protested in loud voices, and in the process, a couple of flowerpots were broken. The police were called, and Gyan Ranjan Khatri, president of Bihar Network of People Living with HIV, was arrested. Getting him bailed out was difficult, and locals report that a case may be filed against him. The question remains: How can it be a criminal offence to demand the government protect the basic right of PLHIV to health?

If India is to progress towards UNAIDS’ global strategic goal of ‘Getting To Zero,’ then we must recognize that our efforts to achieve ‘Zero Discrimination’ need new energy and focus. Like it or not, HIV still inspires irrational fear. Today, on Human Rights Day, we should ask ourselves what we must to do to protect the rights of PLHIV here in India and all around the world. While there can be many solutions—and many are needed—we must listen to PLHIV. Their voices count.

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The author of this post, Francis Joseph, is Programme Officer for Alliance India’s Drug Use & Harm Reduction programmes, based in New Delhi.

Spanning five countries (China, India, Indonesia, Kenya, and Malaysia), Community Action on Harm Reduction (CAHR) expands harm reduction services to more than 180,000 injecting drug users (IDUs), their partners and children. The programme protects and promotes the rights of these groups by fostering an enabling environment for HIV and harm reduction programming in these five countries. CAHR is supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Government of Netherlands.

In India, CAHR is called Hridaya and is implemented by Alliance India in partnership with SASO, Sharan, and a number of community-based harm reduction organisations and networks. This project helps build the capacity of service providers, makes harm reduction programmes more gender-responsive, improves access to services and advocates for the rights of PWIDs. In addition to providing services, Hridaya has a strong capacity building component to support advocacy, knowledge management and improved services for PWIDs.