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Change punitive laws to fight HIV


MSM India (c) Jenny Matthews/Alliance

A new report launched this World AIDS Day warns that punitive legal environments are seriously increasing people’s risk of getting HIV

Enabling legal environments for effective HIV responses was launched at the first World AIDS Day Commonwealth HIV & Human Rights Lecture in London yesterday (30 November), given by Chief Justice Ajit Prakash Shah who overturned Section 377, a 150-year old British law banning gay sex between consenting adults in Delhi, India.

Hosted by Cherie Booth QC and attended by an audience of senior lawyers and diplomats, the lecture was organised by the International HIV/AIDS Alliance and the Commonwealth HIV & AIDS Action Group and hosted by the Commonwealth Foundation.

HIV and AIDS is a major issue in many Commonwealth countries which have inherited outdated British laws. At least 20 African countries have introduced HIV specific offences since 2000.

“We see the problem that punitive laws and enforcement practices can cause for people who need quick and easy access to HIV treatment, care and prevention. Governments and the legal profession need to work more closely with the affected communities to address these laws and access legal services,” said Alvaro Bermejo, Executive Director of the Alliance.

Judging environments

Women and girls, men who have sex with men, sex workers and injecting drug users as well as people who are living with HIV struggle to access the services they need because of environments where they feel judged or punished.

Cherie Booth, QC commented: “The legal profession has an important role to play in providing an environment where people can come forward and be tested for HIV and cared for.”

Justice Shah created shockwaves around the world when he decriminalised homosexuality in Delhi: “Indian society is very conservative but from the evidence presented I could see that without changing the legal framework to help men who have sex with men access good healthcare and HIV prevention services we would not successfully be able to deal with the epidemic in our country.”

Over 60% of people living with HIV live in Commonwealth countries. “The Commonwealth Foundation is committed to doing all it can to help people access HIV prevention, treatment and care. This Commonwealth lecture on World AIDS Day will help more countries become familiar with the example of India, which has identified the benefits of starting to decriminalise homosexuality and abolish laws that drive HIV and AIDS underground,” said Mark Collins, Director of the Commonwealth Foundation.

The report has been jointly produced by the Commonwealth HIV&AIDS Action Group, the International HIV/AIDS Alliance and the Commonwealth Foundation.
You can download the report in full here.

Read more

You can read Justice Shah's lecture and Cherie Booth and Alvaro Bermejo's speeches in full.

Andrew Mitchell: Britain pledges funding boost for poor countries

Cherie Booth: Empower people, don't punish them

The Alliance’s Christine Stegling summarises the report


Visit our YouTube channel for a video of the lecture and interviews with Justice Shah, Alvaro Berjemo and Mark Collins


To a BBC World Service interview with Justice Shah and Dr. Gitau Mburu, senior adviser on HIV and health services, discussing how gay rights laws affect the spread of HIV.

    without changing the legal framework we would not successfully be able to deal with the HIV epidemic in India