(VIDEO) Behind Bars: Life Stories of People Affected by the Criminalization of HIV


Wednesday, December 1st, 2010 is World AIDS Day.  This article and the accompanying interviews in the series Behind Bars are republished with permission from International Planned Parenthood Federation.

Almost 20 years after the HIV virus was discovered, law and policy is still used to criminalize the transmission of HIV.  In some countries this happens under old laws (from the nineteenth century or exported through colonialism) and in others under new laws explicitly drafted as part of the national response to HIV.

The nature and impact of the criminal law and its impact on the response to HIV is neither well documented nor well understood. But it risks further marginalizing people already vulnerable to HIV infection, including women, men who have sex with men, sex workers and people who use drugs. Legislation and legal practice is different in every country around the world, and collectively we need to become more conscious of the impact of both the criminal law and its implementation on national responses to HIV.

To call attention to these and other related issues, the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) has published “Behind Bars,‟ a collection of interviews that exposes how criminal laws regarding HIV transmission are affecting people’s working and private lives all around the world.

The stories illustrate the personal and professional dilemmas faced by doctors, lawyers, researchers and advocates.

They include the stories of a doctor who, against her ethical principles, was forced to aid a police investigation, a woman living with HIV who prosecuted her former partner, and a lawyer who advocated in an HIV transmission case.

By fueling stigma, criminalization undermines efforts to prevent, treat and care for HIV.
From the UK to the USA, Mali to Mozambique, Azerbaijan to Australia, criminal laws are increasingly being used to prosecute HIV transmission or exposure. But, as the interviews reveal, criminal law is a blunt instrument for HIV prevention.

Behind Bars show how a simplistic “law-and-order‟ response to HIV can intensify a climate of denial, secrecy and fear and provide a fertile breeding ground for the spread of HIV.

The drive for criminalization of wilful transmission of HIV is proving a costly intervention – in terms of time and money spent on investigating individuals’ private lives and determining the burden of proof – and seems to have had limited impact on HIV prevention.

Contributor Jan Albert, Professor of Infectious Diseases at the Karolinska Institute Sweden, said:

“Since I‟ve been an expert witness in court trials, my personal opinion regarding people living with the virus has changed. In my experience the accused are seldom “criminals.‟

There are many reasons for neglecting to inform sexual partners about HIV status, including denial. None, or very few, have had the intent to transmit HIV, which is how these acts often are described by the media. There will be more and more HIV infected people living in Sweden, and the rest of the world. Do we want to turn a proportion of our population into potential criminals every time they have sex?”

The interviews can be found here:

These stories show that criminalizing the transmission of HIV is actually undermining our efforts to prevent the spread of HIV. Fear of prosecution deters people from coming forward for testing and counselling; policing the bedroom effectively drives the problem underground.

Behind Bars is published as part of IPPF’s Criminalize hate, Not HIV campaign, for World AIDS Day, December 1, 2010.  This short video highlights the dimensions and impact of laws that criminalize HIV transmission:

The film hints at not only the laws criminalizing HIV transmission and exposure, but also laws criminalizing behaviors associated with HIV transmission (drug injection, sex work and sex between men).

These efforts build on Sexual rights: an IPPF declaration and purposefully focuses on sex – irrespective of how, where, with whom and why people have sex.

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  • arekushieru

    It’s a really interesting contrast (or comparison, rather), Kevin.  There’s a similar case being made on the part of polygamy and criminalization of hate, just within rather than outside of the institution, here, in Canada.  (And, at the same time, it ties into the talk surrounding HIV.)  Firstly, though, it’s a case of polyamory vs polygamy.  Imho, polygamy refers to the business contract of a committed relationship, whether one is married or not, whether we are talking about polygyny, polyandry or a mixed polygamous partnership, within which it is easier to form an abusive atmosphere, esPECially if one brings a patriarchal organized religion into it.  Polyamory, again imho, refers to the union of lovers within a committed relationship.  The prosecution is making that case that polygyny is a criminal act because it discriminates against women.  But polyandry is also a criminal institution in that same regard.  It is rooted deeply in the patriarchal constructs of our society.  But, even if it weren’t, a case could be made that it was oppressive, maybe less so than polygyny, but still oppressive.  So, to get to my point, here: I think they are focussing on the wrong issue.  It shouldn’t be pitting patriarchy/most oppressive vs matriarchy/less oppressive, rather it should be determining the criminalization of either based on abusive/hateful relationships vs supportive/loving relationships.  (Secondly, the way it relates to HIV might be rather obvious, but just in case it isn’t, I will say that it involves multiple partners, at the same time, which constitutes one of the most egregious forms of stigmatization surrounding HIV.)