• A step forward against HIV abuses | Jeffrey O’Malley

    02 Aug 2012

    A woman and her child at Epembe in Kaokoland, Namibia. UN Photo/Alon Reininger
    A woman and her child at Epembe in Kaokoland, Namibia. UN Photo/Alon Reininger

    In a landmark but little noticed decision, a Namibian court ruled this week that state hospitals illegally sterilized three HIV-positive women. While the judge found no link to their HIV-positive status, his decision paves the way for legal action by other women who claim they were coerced into sterilization because they are infected with the virus that causes AIDS, as part of an effort to slow its spread in the southern African country.

    The women said they were given forms authorizing the procedure just before and after delivering babies by caesarean sections without being told what they were signing—while they were either in acute pain or in labor.

    This important decision affirms the rights of all women to the important standard of informed consent and points to the specific vulnerability of women and girls living with HIV with regard to their reproductive rights.

    A just-released report by the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, an independent Commission convened by UNDP on behalf of the joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), highlights the issues of coerced sterilization and forced abortion among HIV-positive women.

    The report, HIV and the Law: Risks, Rights, and Health, found that “coercive and discriminatory practices in health care settings are rife, including forced HIV testing, breaches of confidentiality and the denial of health care services, as well as forced sterilizations and abortions.”

    Since 2001, when forced and coerced sterilization and abortion among HIV-positive women were first documented, reports have emerged from Chile, Venezuela, Mexico, Dominican Republic, Indonesia, Kenya, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, Thailand, Uganda, and Zambia. Some women report being denied access to HIV and health services unless they agree to abortion or sterilization.
    Much work remains to abolish punitive laws and practices related to HIV, such as mandatory HIV-related registration, testing, and forced treatment regimens; to facilitate access to sexual and reproductive health and rights; and to stop forced abortion and coerced sterilization of women and girls.

    The decision this week is a step in the right direction.

    Talk to us: How can the law help or hinder effective responses to HIV?


About the author
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Jeffrey O’Malley is Director of the HIV/AIDS Group in the UNDP Bureau for Development Policy.

Related publications
HIV and the Law: Risks, Rights & Health

The final report of the Global Commission on HIV and the Law presents a coherent and compelling evidence base on human rights and legal issues relating to HIV.

More HIV/AIDS publications