The HIV-free generation will remain a myth without respect for human rights
The government of Lesotho has committed to creating an enabling environment to strengthen its responses to the HIV/Aid pandemic. It has done so because there is an increasing availability of anti-retroviral treatment (ART) as a tool to reduce HIV prevalence. A pandemic which continues to overwhelm the country.
According to a report by Avert, a UK-based organisation working at the forefront of HIV education, which investigated HIV and Aids in Lesotho: ART coverage is presently estimated at 57%. At the moment, the country has also introduced a “Test and Treat Programme” where people are tested and if the result is positive, they are put on medication right away. This is one of the many strategies that government has put in place as a response to the HIV/Aids pandemic. While these accomplishments are impressive, Lesotho is one of the countries hardest hit by HIV, with the second highest HIV prevalence after Swaziland, according to the UN Office of the High Commissioner.
Global research has shown that the HIV pandemic is still being driven by human rights violations around the world. A UNAIDS report from 2016 indicates that gender minorities are the most affected. Lesotho is not an exception: local research reveals that one of the key drivers of HIV/Aids in Lesotho has been, and remains, the failure to ensure human rights protections of populations at risk for infection such sex workers, LGBT+ people –especially men who have sex with men (MSM), and drug users.
There is a failure to protect human rights due to laws and beliefs which increase stigma and discrimination. Research has also shown that certain groups are more vulnerable to contracting and spreading HIV. There are strong strategies that are put in place to address the pandemic but they are hampered in an environment where human rights are not respected. A major concern is the strong link between the violations of human rights of marginalised groups in Lesotho. These have not only been one of the root causes of new infection but also one reason why some of these groups – such as sex workers or men having sex with other men – are particularly and severely affected by HIV.
Stigma and discrimination is the daily bread for marginalised groups and drives these communities underground, obstructing their access to a number of their rights and making them reluctant to seek medical attention or other services. Regrettably, Lesotho still has laws that criminalise gender minorities most affected by HIV and this fuels stigma and discrimination. The effort made will not yield better results unless human rights and the leaving no one behind premise are placed at the core of national HIV programmes.
This is when the country can begin to talk of an HIV-free generation. Leaving no one behind requires reaching our communities that are deeply marginalised. The starting point is the recognition of all people being equal in their enjoyment of their rights. UNAIDS’s goal of “zero new infections, zero aids related deaths and zero discrimination” can only be achieved if human rights inform and motivate the response.
Laws against sodomy and prostitution need to be repealed to create an environment where a gay man or a sex worker is free to be open about themselves. Society must reach the place where marginalised communities will be protected from stigma and discrimination. Criminalisation has created fertile conditions for oppression and difficulties in accessing basic services. Stigma and discrimination jeopardise equitable distribution of HIV-related goods for prevention and care.
What’s the way forward?
Talking a human rights perspective on this issue is essential. There is a need to understand the link between HIV and human rights. The protection and promotion of human rights are essential in the fight against HIV for reducing the community’ vulnerability. By addressing the root causes, the adverse impact of those infected is lessened.
HIV/Aids should not be viewed solely as a health issue but as a human rights issue because of its serious implications for the population. UNAIDS found that throughout the long struggle against HIV it has become apparent that human rights are central to effective national responses to HIV. The Declaration of Commitment on HIV/Aids states: “The full realisation of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all is an essential element in a global response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic, including in the areas of prevention, care, support and treatment, and […] it reduces vulnerability to HIV/AIDS and prevents stigma and related discrimination against people living with or at risk of HIV/AIDS”.
An HIV-free generation cannot be realised if marginalised groups are cut off from efforts undertaken in the fight against HIV. Programmes targeting HIV must respond to the needs of people with a special focus be directed to the most disadvantaged in society.