Protecting and Promoting the Sexual Rights of Women Living with HIV

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Messages about love and sex to HIV-positive women. Image provided by Shari Margolese.

On Tuesday the U.S. Positive Women’s Network (PWN) hosted a webinar to discuss HIV-positive women’s sexual rights and to commemorate Valentine’s Day as a day to uphold the rights of HIV-positive women to have safe and satisfying sexual lives.  According to a fact sheet released by PWN, “An expression of love for women living with HIV is supporting our rights to our sexuality.”  Presenters discussed various ways in which HIV-positive women can gain sexual and reproductive rights, from using a human rights based approach, to implementing new biomedical prevention technologies through US health care reform, to how to advocate for women-centered care.

Professor Aziza Ahmed of Northeastern University discussed using human rights tools to advocate for HIV-positive women’s sexual rights.  She said the human rights approach gives us a way to evaluate laws and policies that affect the lives of HIV-positive women and also offers certain tools for advocating for women’s sexual rights.  Ahmed explained that naming and shaming sexual rights violators is an effective tool.

By documenting human rights violations and making them public, HIV-positive women have gained sexual rights in some countries, including Namibia, where a campaign to sterilize HIV-infected women in health centers and clinics without their consent was stopped once the International Community of Women with HIV/AIDS (ICW) conducted an investigation and documented violations to the media.  Ahmed also added that engaging in litigation against human rights violations is also affective, as is engagement with the United Nations system to lobby governments.

Presenters also explained that women living with HIV can gain rights by citing biomedical advances.   For example, Brooke Kelly of the PWN explained that results from the HPTN 052 study show that criminalization laws are not scientifically sound since persons who receive appropriate therapy are not a public health threat[CL1] .

Shari Margolese, a research consultant at the Women’s College Research Institute in Toronto, Canada, discussed how sexual rights advocates established comprehensive health care guidelines for women living with HIV in Canada.  Unfortunately, Canada leads the way in criminalizing and prosecuting people living with HIV for non-disclosure.  The issue of convicting HIV-infected people for non-disclosure is currently before the Supreme Court, with the prosecution making the case that “criminal law is meant to protect the public at large, even if it means singling out people infected with HIV.”  The Vancouver Sun has even stated that an “HIV-infected person’s sex life cannot be like everyone else’s.”

In this hostile environment, HIV-infected women had few sexual or reproductive rights or services enjoyed by other women.  Margolese explained that there is a disparity between fertility needs and services available for Canadians living with HIV and those who are not.  Although over 57 percent of Canadian women living with HIV reported that they desired to have children, there were few services tailored for their needs.

To address this disparity in access to services, advocates created the Canadian HIV Fertility Program, which aims to guide and assist all people living with HIV in Canada with their fertility desires and pregnancy planning in a holistic, ethical, supportive and medically sound manner.  After a thorough investigation of healthcare services for HIV-infected women in Canada, the program developed the National Pregnancy Planning Guidelines, which aim to make fertility services a part of healthcare for HIV-infected women.  The guidelines will be implemented throughout Canada this year.

Margolese also described how the program succeeded in implementing fertility services for people living with HIV in an Ottawa healthcare center.  The program established a focus group and workshop at the center, and established contacts with local infectious disease specialists.  After the staff was educated about fertility care for people living with HIV through workshops, they all unanimously agreed to provide fertility care for HIV-infected women.

Click here to listen to a recording of the webinar and to view presentations.

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