I have been working for several years with policy- and law-makers to support a rights-based response to HIV and contribute to stemming the tide of the epidemic.
This work often requires raising highly controversial and discomfiting issues such as class, sexuality, gender and stigmatized behaviors such as drug use. It also involves the most marginalized society groups– sex workers, transgender people, homosexual men and drug users.
Often, parliamentarians are not fully informed of the complex factors that allow HIV to spread and thrive within communities, particularly the ways in which marginalization, disempowerment, stigma and discrimination contribute to making people vulnerable. But I have witnessed how individuals in positions of influence – lawmakers, judges, the police – can drive advancements in the law that protect those affected by HIV and benefit society at large.
Concerted efforts at engaging parliamentarians on human rights issues can lead to tangible change, although it is often a slow and onerous process.
We, at UNDP, play a pivotal role in engaging governments and building capacity of government actors on many development issues, including on HIV and the crucial need for rights-based legal approaches in addressing the epidemic. Our support of the Global Commission on HIV and the Law has been such an effort. The Commission made several recommendations to governments to reform and re-examine laws that impede effective HIV responses, and introduce rights-based legislation to strengthen such responses.
Another part of our efforts towards law reform is our staff guidance manual on engaging with members of parliament on HIV and the law. The manual highlights key principles, strategies and activities to work with elected officials in a variety of settings. It is intended as a practical tool that should be adapted to country contexts, and used in conjunction with other resource materials.
Although this manual is primarily intended as a resource for our staff who may be involved in reaching out to parliamentarians, it may also be a useful resource for civil society organizations and other national and international entities advocating for legal environments to improve the national HIV response.
Parliamentarians are rarely keen to discuss concerns of those who do not constitute a vote-bank, or who may be perceived as reprobates by general society. Yet, the conversation on how appropriate laws can help in controlling HIV is essential if public health needs are to be addressed.