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Human rights and HIV

HIV and human rights are linked. Human rights abuses are one of the things that drive the HIV epidemic. At the same time, HIV undermines progress towards the realisation of human rights.

Human rights violations include the criminalisation of people with HIV and people most affected by it. Rights violations also include discrimination and abuse.

Rights violations make people more vulnerable to HIV and less able to access HIV prevention services, testing and lifesaving treatment.

Protecting, promoting, respecting and fulfilling people’s human rights is an essential part of an effective HIV response.

What are human rights?

Human rights are rights we have because we are human. These universal rights apply to us all, regardless of nationality, gender, sexuality, age, ethnic origin, religion, health, or any other status. They range from the most fundamental – the right to life – to those that make life worth living, such as the rights to food, education, work and liberty.

The right to health is a human right. And every person has the right to access healthcare services, including HIV services. People also have the right to equal treatment before the law and the right to dignity.

Many countries have committed to upholding human rights by signing international laws and treaties.

What links human rights and HIV?

HIV and human rights are closely connected. The people facing human rights violations are often the most marginalised in society. And this marginalisation makes them more vulnerable to HIV than other people. Yet marginalised groups often face huge challenges in accessing HIV prevention services, testing and treatment because their human rights are not respected.

HIV-related rights violations can take many forms.

HIV criminalisation

HIV criminalisation refers to laws that criminalise people with HIV. This can be via HIV-specific laws or general criminal laws that prosecute:

  • unintentional HIV transmission
  • potential or perceived exposure to HIV where HIV was not transmitted
  • non-disclosure of known HIV-positive status.

Evidence shows that HIV criminalisation is a poor public health strategy. It stops people from testing for HIV, which limits access to treatment and care, and this helps to drive HIV transmission. Laws that make people with HIV disclose their status actually make it less likely that people will tell others they have HIV.

Laws that target people most affected by HIV

Many countries have discriminatory laws and policies, such as the criminalisation of sex work, drug use, and of sexual orientation and gender identity. These laws push marginalised groups away from vital HIV and sexual health services, which violates their right to health and to healthcare. These laws can also restrict marginalised people’s ability to demand other rights, such as the right to employment.

Discriminatory laws help to drive stigma and discrimination against marginalised communities. This can result in poor treatment in healthcare settings or denial of treatment. It can also make it difficult for organisations offering sexual health and HIV services to work with marginalised communities, despite these communities urgently needing this support.

What can we do to improve human rights?

Rights awareness

It is important to support people with HIV and other marginalised communities to understand their rights. Dialogues, training or educational sessions can be a useful way to explain what human rights are, and to show people that the things they are experiencing may be violating their rights – and what can be done to challenge this. It is also important to train those who marginalise others, so they can unlearn this behaviour and help rather than hinder.

Monitoring and responding to rights

It is useful to record cases of human rights violations. This data can be used to refer people who have experienced violations to health, legal and other public services. It can also be turned into evidence to present to those in authority, to advocate for changes to laws, policies and programmes.

Legal services

Providing legal support to people whose rights have been violated not only helps them to seek justice, it can also help to challenge, and eventually change, discriminatory laws and practices.

Putting marginalised communities at the centre of programmes

Communities most affected by HIV should be full and equal participants in programmes so they have the power to bring about positive change to their own lives. It is also important to assess whether your programmes, activities and organisation operate in a non-discriminatory way.

Building knowledge and understanding among those in authority

Supporting people who have a duty of care to others, such as healthcare workers, police, teachers and politicians, to understand the impact of rights violations on marginalised communities is vital for bringing about change.

Holding governments to account

When countries sign human rights treaties, conventions and laws they legally commit to enforcing these rights. These commitments can be used to hold governments to account and to track progress.

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  • Last updated: 30 March 2023
  • Last full review: 01 March 2022
  • Next full review: 01 March 2025
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