Rights and Humanity launched its AIDS programme in 1987 with an article in the Journal of Rights and Humanity entitled "Human Rights and the International AIDS Crisis". This analysed the human rights consequences following research undertaken on AIDS in Africa by Mr Bob Grose, one of our then Trustees.
People living with HIV/AIDS faced travel restrictions and certain groups of people considered to be at risk of infection were frequently subjected to mandatory testing.
Over the coming years we conducted further research on the human rights implications of AIDS. In the early years of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, discrimination against people with HIV/AIDS was one of the most visible AIDS-related violations of human rights. Other major concerns were AIDS-related travel restrictions and coercive public health measures. More recently, a major concern has been access to anti-retroviral drugs.
By 1989, Rights and Humanity had learnt of people with HIV being chained to the walls of prison cells, of others being quarantined on remote islands, of people living with HIV being denied access to medical and dental treatment and children with HIV being refused schooling. One child with haemophilia, who had contracted HIV through contaminated blood, was forced to sit in school in a plastic bubble.
It was not just public authorities that were involved in discrimination. Throughout the world, fear and ignorance fuelled stigma and rejection by employers, communities, and even family members. People living with AIDS had their houses burnt down, they were denied jobs and suffered stigma in their social life. It was essential to allay people’s fear by explaining how HIV is, and is not, transmitted.
AIDS-related discrimination affects not only those people with HIV or AIDS, but also their families, friends and associates. Discrimination had been recognised early in the HIV/AIDS pandemic as a serious concern, but Rights and Humanity pointed out the far wider human rights implications.
HIV/AIDS affects every aspect of life and affects enjoyment of many human rights. For example, discrimination impedes the rights to work, housing and education. Similarly, lack of enjoyment of such rights as access to safe water, adequate nutrition and health care services, for example, all exacerbate the consequences of HIV infection.
Women and AIDS
In 1988, Rights and Humanity’s concern for women’s rights led us to undertake research on the impact of the HIV/AIDS pandemic on women. This revealed the vulnerability of women to the risk of HIV as a result of their disadvantaged legal, political, economic and social status.
Human Rights, Ethical and Social Consequence of AIDS in Africa
During the years 1989-1990, Rights and Humanity undertook a number of field research missions throughout Sub-Saharan Africa for WHO and the Commonwealth Secretariat. We identified the social and ethical aspects of AIDS and analysed these through the lens of international human rights law. Rights and Humanity’s studies researched:
- AIDS and human movement in the Commonwealth
- the legal and ethical aspects of public health measures to prevent and control AIDS, including such issues as voluntary testing, screening donating blood, contract tracing and partners notification, professional medical ethics, access to health care and treatment and research, identifying unacceptable policies such as travel restrictions and coercive laws and policies
- the social consequences of AIDS in Africa, including vulnerability of women, paediatric AIDS, stigmatisation and discrimination, the effects on the family, orphans and abandoned babies, adoption and community bereavement, traditional practices that posed a risk of HIV transmission, such as widow’s inheritance, considering how each could best be addressed.
- the global and regional challenges and opportunities, proposing an agenda for action.
Example of Traditional Practice Increasing Risk of HIV Transmission
In a number of African societies, in order to avoid widows being left without support, tradition required that they be taken in by their late husband’s family. Custom sometimes required widows to marry their husband’s brother, regardless of the number of his existing wives and children. Such “widow inheritance” and the ritual “cleansing” of widows (which may involve sexual intercourse with a male member of her late husband’s family) posed a risk of HIV infection for both parties.
Our conclusions and recommendations were published in a number of reports we prepared for WHO and the Commonwealth Secretariat during the late 1980s and early 1990s and informed the policy-making and training workshops we held in Europe and Africa with public health officials and other stakeholders.
Our research also formed the basis of the two UN reports which we were commissioned by WHO to write on behalf of Mr Varela Quirós, the Special Rapporteur on AIDS-related discrimination, in 1991 and 1992. In this way, our research and proposed strategies helped influence global and national policies on HIV/AIDS.