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Breaking down legal barriers to HIV information access

There are thousands of commercial sex workers in Bangladesh who live and die unrecorded, most of whom have no place to sleep.
(Shamsuddin Ahmed/IRIN)

While a number of Asian and Pacific countries are addressing legal barriers to accessing HIV information and treatment, there is still a gap between policy and implementation, say officials.

"No matter how good our laws are, the effectiveness of them is in the will of those implementing them," said Fiji's President Ratu Epeli Nailatikau at a recent UN-convened meeting in Bangkok on addressing legal barriers to HIV care and prevention.

Almost all countries in the region still have at least one "punitive law" - a policy or practice that impedes access to HIV services - according to a recent report from UN Joint Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).

Laws that criminalize same-sex relations and sex work or restrict travel for HIV-positive people make it difficult to provide information and care for people most at risk of HIV infection, officials say.

Progress to scrap such laws has been mixed in the region - even within one country.

Fiji, for example, eliminated laws restricting travel of people infected with HIV in 2011 and became the first country in the Pacific region to decriminalize sex between men in 2010.

But at the same time, in February 2010, prostitution was criminalized, giving police the right to arrest and charge people who operate as sex workers.

The government is now reviewing HIV legislation and punitive laws.

Elsewhere in the region, the national AIDS programme manager of Myanmar's Health Ministry, Khin Ohnmar San, told IRIN Burmese police forces had been informed of a 2007 order that "condoms must not be used as material witness to arrest sex workers".

But that has done little to assuage sex workers' fears in Myanmar, said Kay Thi Win, programme manager with a Yangon-based NGO that informs sex workers about HIV prevention and their legal rights.

Many sex workers "are still afraid to carry condoms because of the police", she added.

Andrew Hunter, president of the Bangkok-based Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers (APNSW) said regionally, women are still arrested on the suspicion of working in the sex industry, which is outlawed, if they are carrying condoms.

"Everyone pleads guilty because experience shows that fighting cases in court leads to longer jail sentences."

APNSW provides support to sex workers in 22 countries in the region.

Hunter added: "There is a scale of what sex worker advocates can do across the Asia Pacific, from Myanmar, where advocacy must be done quietly and behind the scenes, to India where sex workers are able to take to the streets to protest."

In India, which accounts for almost half of those infected with HIV in the region, there are efforts to update police officers about HIV prevention and all policies regarding treatment, said Tejdeep Kaur Menon, a director-general of police forces in the city of Hyderabad in the country's southeast.

Home to 60 percent of the world's population, the regional death toll from AIDS in 2010 (some 310,000 people) is second only to that of sub-Saharan Africa.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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