November 30, 2022 — Today, the HIV Legal Network marks World AIDS Day by joining with the United Nations (UN) in a call to governments around the world to reform laws, policies, and practices that create and exacerbate the stigma faced by people living with HIV. With this year’s theme being “Equalize,” we are focused on supporting people who are more frequently marginalized, and we continue to stand at the forefront of efforts to challenge laws and policies that oppress people based on their HIV status, sexual orientation, drug use, and involvement in sex work.
Inequity continues to drive HIV transmissions throughout the world. The UN estimates that only a third of people in key populations — including gay men and other men who have sex with men, transgender people, people who use drugs, sex workers, and people who are incarcerated — have regular access to measures to prevent HIV infection. These communities also face major barriers including criminalization, discrimination, and stigma. Breaking down these barriers, and the laws and policies that uphold and reinforce them, is critical to achieving the internationally agreed-upon targets and ensuring that all people living with HIV have equitable access to prevention and treatment.
This World AIDS Day, we would like to highlight a few of our areas of focus as we work towards real change for people living with and affected by HIV.
- Reforming HIV Criminalization: In Canada, people living with HIV can still be charged, prosecuted, and convicted for not disclosing their HIV-positive status to a sexual partner, even in cases where there was little to no possibility of transmission, no intent to transmit, and no actual transmission occurred. On October 20, 2022, the Government of Canada launched a national public consultation (running through January 2023) on reforming Canada’s criminal laws on HIV non-disclosure. This announcement followed years of extensive advocacy by many, and a series of national consultations conducted with the HIV community by the Canadian Coalition to Reform HIV Criminalization (CCRHC), of which the HIV Legal Network is a founding member. The results of these consultations were shared in two consensus statements released in 2017 and 2022 that clearly showed an overwhelming consensus that the law needs to change. The time for law reform is now.
- Advocating to Resource Canada’s HIV Response: UN data shows that during the past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic and other global crises, progress against the HIV pandemic has faltered, resources have shrunk, and millions of lives are at risk as a result. On the international stage, we are buoyed by Canada’s commitment of $1.21B to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, representing a marked increase in funding. Now we hope to see the same leadership from Canada on the domestic front, where HIV services have been chronically underfunded for almost 15 years. Since 2008, more than $123 million committed by the Canadian government to respond to the HIV epidemic has not been delivered. AIDS Service Organizations (ASOs) across Canada are working with fewer resources every year to support people living with HIV and prevent further transmission of the virus, often while leading the response to the drug poisoning crisis in their communities and doing this work without pause during the COVID-19 pandemic. It is imperative that the Government of Canada fulfils its promises when it comes to HIV funding here at home.
- Expanding Life-Saving Harm Reduction Services in Canada’s Prisons: While harm reduction services have expanded over the last two decades, the vast majority of people incarcerated in prisons in Canada continue to be denied access to evidence-based needle and syringe programs. Despite a federal government promise in 2018 to expand its prison needle exchange program (PNEP) to all federal prisons, it currently only exists in nine of these prisons, and numerous unnecessary barriers deter people from accessing the program where it is available. In fact, researchers from the HIV Legal Network and Toronto Metropolitan University released the first-ever national independent study of Canada’s PNEP analyzing flaws in the program and making strong recommendations to ensure equitable access. Prison health is public health, and prisoners do not forfeit their human rights behind bars.
- Challenging Sex Work Laws: In October 2022, a constitutional challenge to Canada’s Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act (PCEPA) by the Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform — a coalition of sex worker rights groups representing thousands of sex workers across the country, of which the HIV Legal Network is a proud member — along with six individual applicants, was heard in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice. Canada’s sex work offences have contributed to sex workers’ experiences of isolation, targeted violence, stigma, lack of access to health, legal, and social services, child apprehension, loss of liberty, detention, and deportation. This cannot stand.
As communities gather in strength and solidarity this World AIDS Day, the HIV Legal Network renews its dedication to the goal of upholding the rights of people living with and affected by HIV. We know that human rights for all are within reach. We call on the Government of Canada and all governments around the world to recommit themselves to this longstanding and ongoing pandemic — one that deserves resolution. It is long past time to equalize the response to HIV.
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About the HIV Legal Network
The HIV Legal Network (www.hivlegalnetwork.ca) promotes the human rights of people living with HIV or AIDS and other populations disproportionately affected by HIV, punitive laws and policies, and criminalization, in Canada and internationally. We do this through research and analysis, litigation and other advocacy, public education, and community mobilization.
Janet Butler-McPhee, Co-Executive Director
HIV Legal Network
Telephone: +1 647-295-0861