HIV, law, human rights and gender equality

HIV, law, human rights and gender equality

Those who are most vulnerable to HIV – such as sex workers, gay and bisexual men and men who have sex with men, transgender people, people who inject drugs, women and girls, young people, prisoners - are often those most marginalized in society. Evidence shows that those who experience inequality, discrimination and  violence; those populations whose human rights are least respected or protected; those populations who live in societies that criminalize their conduct, are least able to protect themselves from HIV infection and to access appropriate treatment, prevention, care and support.

Example: Gender Inequality, Harmful Gender Norms, Gender-based Violence and HIV

A wide range of laws, customs and practices – for instance from those allowing young girls to be married below the age of 18 years and those overlooking the rape of a wife by her husband, to those prohibiting women from owning or inheriting property or to having autonomous decision-making power within their relationships - perpetuate gender inequality. These laws, policies and practices limit the ability of women and young girls to control their lives, including their ability to protect themselves from HIV exposure. 

Global Commission on HIV and the Law Working Papers on Women, Girls and HIV

In addition, due to the ongoing stigma and prejudice surrounding HIV, people living with HIV experience discrimination and violations of their rights.

Example: Discrimination against people living with HIV

The People Living with HIV Stigma Index studies document the experiences of stigma and discrimination faced by people living with HIV across the globe, including verbal and physical harassment and abuse within their homes and communities; denial of sexual and reproductive health care services and discrimination within their working environments

The People Living with HIV Stigma Index

Sister at local health clinic leading gender sensitive services

These human rights challenges are exacerbated when people living with and affected by HIV become ill, lose their jobs and are impoverished by costs of health care. They become increasingly vulnerable, with less agency to protect their rights and limited ability to cope with the impact of HIV.

The Global Commission on HIV and the Law

The Global Commission on HIV and the Law, a global commission of HIV and human rights leaders, experts and activists, led by UNDP and convened on behalf of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS undertook consultations and deliberations in seven regions of the world during 2010-2012. The consultations were accompanied by extensive research and analysis to examine the relationship between laws, policies, practices and HIV in six focus areas:

  • HIV-related stigma and discrimination
  • Criminalization of HIV transmission, exposure and non-disclosure of HIV status
  • Risk and stigma experienced by key populations
  • Gender-based violence and the disempowerment of women
  • Children and youth, and
  • Intellectual property law and access to treatment.

The Global Commission’s comprehensive review and report, Risks, Rights & Health found evidence of how bad laws, policies and practices were fuelling the spread of HIV, resulting in human rights violations for affected populations and limiting the efficacy and efficiency of HIV and health programmes. They also noted that protective laws and practices to promote human rights and gender equality strengthened the response. The report made recommendations for strengthened legal and policy environments to respond to HIV to increase access to prevention, treatment, care and support for all, including for key populations.

Global Commission on HIV and the Law (2012) Risks, Rights & Health

The UNAIDS Reference Group on HIV and Human Rights

The UNAIDS Reference Group on HIV and Human Rights, which is co-managed by UNDP, advises UNAIDS on matters relating to HIV and human rights.

The Reference Group has discussed and examined critical human rights and gender equality issues and produced leading guidance on protecting human rights in various aspects of effective responses to HIV.

The Reference Group furthermore provides advice on the implementation of the human rights elements of the UNAIDS 2016-2021 Strategy. The Strategy highlights Critical Enablers and Key Populations with specific targets linked to the Sustainable Development Goals. The strategy has a specific focus on prevention, treatment and support services; social protection programmes and gender equality. The strategy also has a specific result area focused on ensuring that punitive laws, policies, practices, stigma and discrimination that block effective responses to HIV are removed.

UNAIDS Reference Group on HIV and Human Rights
Critical Enablers Section