The recent attack on the office and staff of LaSky, an NGO working with Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) communities in St. Petersburg, Russia is a reminder of the grave challenges in ensuring that AIDS responses are free of violence, harassment and discrimination.
Similar attacks have made LaSky close its HIV outreach work in Moscow. While HIV is increasingly considered a chronic condition due to advances in bio-medical science, stigma, hatred and ignorance continue to fuel the epidemic.
Many LGBT people live in fear of harassment, discrimination and violence in their daily lives.
Recent legislative initiatives taken in many countries negatively affects access to essential health services and lifesaving HIV programmes, deterring marginalized people from seeking HIV counseling, testing and treatment.
A new law in Russia imposes fines and administrative arrests, and in case of foreign citizen deportation if they don’t pay fines, for people accused of spreading “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations to minors.”
Its existence fuels homophobia and has the unintended consequence of criminalizing sexual health education for young people in Russia, where rates of HIV infection have been rising dramatically.
A similar draft was voted by Ukraine’s Parliament at a first hearing, although it has yet to be passed into law.
In Turkey, courts have justified crimes against transgender people on grounds of ‘unjust provocation.’
In 2012, the Report of the Global Commission on HIV and the Law reminded us that rights-based law and its robust implementation can play a vital role in stemming the tide of HIV.
The report states that the law “has the power to bridge the gap between vulnerability and resilience to HIV.”
Experience demonstrates that laws and policies, which reaffirm international obligations to rights of equality, dignity, privacy, and security contribute effectively in responding to HIV.
The Commission pointed out that it was overwhelmed by how archaic, insensitive laws are violating human rights, challenging rational public health responses and eroding social fabric.
Yet, norms continue to be either openly discriminatory and punitive or are framed in the guise of “protecting morality.”
Whichever form they take, these laws create an environment of discrimination, stigmatization and criminalization against people living with HIV and people most at risk of HIV, often times at the cost of human lives.
However, Andrey Beloglazov, the head of LaSky network is undeterred. He confirmed to us that they will change offices in St. Petersburg but they will continue their HIV outreach work in other parts.
The time to demonstrate policy and legal support for interventions like LaSky is now. Such support would be anchored in robust evidence, which demonstrates the efficacy of this important health-related work.
On the other hand, the evidence to justify measures in banning “homosexual propaganda,” or ”propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations to minors” that permit violent actions against organizations like LaSky is plainly absent.