UNDP supports legal services to those affected by HIV/AIDS

May 6, 2009

A volunteer in Zambia assisting a local woman with health information on AIDS.
Credit: UN Photos

Consider the myriad ways that living with HIV/AIDS might affect one’s ability to accomplish basic tasks. Often, it is a challenge just to maintain adequate housing, keep child custody, enforce property and inheritance rights, and access health care, education or employment without discrimination. 

The challenge is even more daunting in punitive legal environments. As an increasing number of countries are passing overly-broad laws to criminalize HIV transmission, men who have sex with men, sex workers, and people who use drugs face criminal sanctions, blocking access to HIV services and heightening HIV vulnerability.

To address the paucity of attention to this issue, UNDP, the International Development Law Organization (IDLO) and the UNAIDS Secretariat hosted an expert consultation on strengthening and expanding HIV legal services at IDLO’s Rome headquarters this week.  The May 3-6 meeting supported the development of three tools to improve access to HIV legal services:

• Models of legal services applicable in different situations
• Training curriculum for lawyers
• Resource mobilization strategies.

Access to legal services is an important part of guaranteeing protection from discrimination, getting redress for human rights violations, and expanding access to HIV prevention and treatment.  Yet such programmes are not sufficiently supported by national AIDS responses. Where they do exist, quality and scale are often insufficient.

Legal services in the context of HIV take many forms. These include: provision of legal information and advice, formal litigation (including strategic litigation to create policy); dispute resolution; assistance with informal or traditional legal systems (e.g., village courts); and community education.  Legal service providers are not always lawyers.  They may be paralegals, volunteers, students or peer educators.  Services are provided in a range of settings, including HIV treatment and counselling centres, mainstream legal aid centres, as well as prisons and community settings. 

According to Mandeep Dhaliwal, Cluster Leader on Gender, Human Rights & Sexual Diversities with the UNDP HIV Practice, the rationale for supporting HIV legal services rests on two related arguments.  “One, they are essential as a means to protect the human rights of marginalized and vulnerable populations.  Two, they are essential as a means to ensure optimal public health and development outcomes – both of which are underpinned by the realization of rights,” says Dhaliwal.

Participants in the Rome meeting included legal service providers and leaders of organizations working with people living with HIV, women’s groups, people who use drugs, men who have sex with men and sex workers, as well as representatives from IDLO, UNAIDS, UNDP, and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.  They came from diverse countries and epidemic settings, including Australia, Botswana, Brazil, China, Denmark, Egypt, Georgia, Guatemala, India, Indonesia, Nepal, Papua New Guinea, St Lucia, Uganda, Ukraine, the United States of America and Vietnam.

UNDP works to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS and reduce its impact. As a trusted development partner, and co-sponsor of UNAIDS, it helps countries put HIV/AIDS at the centre of national development and poverty reduction strategies; build national capacity to mobilize all levels of government and civil society for a coordinated and effective response to the epidemic; and protect the rights of people living with AIDS, women, and vulnerable populations. Because HIV/AIDS is a world-wide problem, UNDP supports these national efforts by offering knowledge, resources and best practices from around the world.

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