The public health and human rights impact on women

Edwin J. Bernard
Published: 18 July 2010


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The push for many of the new HIV-specific laws on the African continent (which often contain both protective and punitive elements) has either come from women or from those who believe that these laws can protect women and girls from being infected with HIV by unfaithful partners and/or sexual violence.1,2 Representatives of some women’s rights groups have pointed out that women are poorly served when the criminal law and the criminal justice system fail to address the effects of the ‘other epidemic’3 of gender-based violence, particularly within long-term intimate relationships. However, it has been suggested that HIV-specific criminal laws may, in fact, threaten the health and human rights of women and girls.4,5,6,7,8,9

One reason for this is that such laws can place women in a difficult situation once they learn of their HIV status. The scale-up of antenatal HIV testing in many settings is a worldwide effort to reduce mother-to-child transmission of HIV. A consequence of this important public health strategy is that women are often more likely to learn their HIV status before male partners have learned theirs.10,7 Women who perceive that they could be blamed for ‘bringing HIV home’ may feel unable to disclose their HIV status to their male partners due to a very real fear of physical harm, eviction and/or other serious negative consequences. (As detailed in the chapter: Proof, there is growing understanding of sexual practises inside and outside marriage, including evidence that men are engaging in HIV sexual risk taking outside their primary relationship without disclosing this to their partners.11) In addition, power imbalances within relationships may prevent women from exercising the choice to practise safer sex, in particular since condoms are a male-controlled HIV-prevention method. Men may also be more likely to seek recourse via state-justice systems and/or patriarchal customary laws, which are recognised to some degree in most African legal systems.

A 2004 review of 17 studies from Asia and Africa concluded that, in many locations, a large percentage of women feared violence, abandonment and accusations of infidelity if they told their family members or sexual partners that they were HIV-positive.12 Consequently, current WHO HIV-testing and counselling guidelines recognise pregnant women as a group vulnerable to adverse consequences of disclosure of HIV-positive status.13

Although rare, HIV-positive pregnant women in the United States and Canada have been prosecuted for mother-to-child transmission under general criminal or public health law (see Criminal HIV Transmission., 28 October 2008). Several African jurisdictions have enacted HIV-specific laws that are worded in ways that make them applicable to pregnant women who know, or think, that they have HIV. The potential for prosecuting mother-to-child transmission is made explicit in Sierra Leone's HIV-specific law (although the proposed National AIDS Commission Act 201014 would remove this provision) and is implicit in several other African countries' HIV-specific laws.1 Commentators suggest that it would be inappropriate for any government to expend public resources to prosecute mother-to-child transmission until such a government does everything possible to enable women to avoid unwanted pregnancies and to ensure ready access to effective prevention of mother-to-child transmission programmes.15

UNAIDS16 argues that criminalising mother-to-child transmission is always inappropriate because:

  • Everyone has the right to have a family, including women living with HIV.

  • When pregnant women are counselled about the benefits of antiretroviral therapy, almost all agree to being tested and receive treatment.

  • In the rare cases where pregnant women may be reluctant to undergo HIV testing or treatment, it is usually because they fear that their HIV-positive status will become known and they will face violence, discrimination or abandonment.

  • Forcing women to undergo antiretroviral treatment in order to avoid criminal prosecution for mother-to-child transmission violates the ethical and legal requirements that medical procedures be performed only with informed consent.

  • HIV-positive mothers may have no safer options than to breastfeed, because they lack breast-milk substitutes or clean water to prepare infant formula.


  1. Pearshouse R Legislation contagion: the spread of problematic new HIV laws in Western Africa. HIV/AIDS Policy & Law Review 12 (2/3), 2007
  2. Kazatchkine C Criminalizing HIV transmission or exposure: the context of French-speaking West and Central Africa. HIV/AIDS Policy & Law Review 14(3), 2010
  3. ARASA/OSISA Report on the ARASA/OSISA Civil Society Consultative Meeting on the Criminalization of the Willful Transmission of HIV. ARASA/OSISA, 2007
  4. Burris S et al. The criminalization of HIV: time for an unambiguous rejection of the use of the criminal law to regulate the sexual behavior of those with and at risk of HIV. SSRN, 2008
  5. IPPF, GNP+, ICW Verdict on a Virus: public health, human rights and criminal law. Available online at:, 2008
  6. Jürgens R et al. Ten Reasons to Oppose the Criminalization of HIV Exposure or Transmission. New York: Open Society Institute, 2008
  7. Athena Network 10 Reasons Why Criminalization of HIV Exposure or Transmission Harms Women. Available online at:, 2009
  8. Brown W et al. Criminalising HIV transmission: punishment without protection. Reproductive Health Matters 17(34): 119-126, 2009
  9. Grover A Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. United Nations Human Rights Council, Fourteenth Session (A/HRC/14/20), 27 April 2010
  10. Clayton M et al. Criminalising HIV transmission: is this what women really need? 17th International AIDS Conference, Mexico City, abstract WEAE0102, 2008
  11. Celum C et al. Acyclovir and transmission of HIV-1 from persons infected with HIV-1 and HSV-2. N Engl J Med 362(5):427-39, 2010
  12. Medley A et al. Rates, barriers and outcomes of HIV serostatus disclosure among women in developing countries: implications for prevention of mother-to-child transmission programmes. Bulletin of World Health Organization 82(4): 299-307, 2004
  13. WHO, UNAIDS Guidance on provider-initiated HIV testing and counseling in health facilities. Geneva, 2007
  14. Nyambe M Personal correspondence with the author. Unpublished, 2010
  15. Csete J et al. Vertical HIV transmission should be excluded from criminal prosecution. Reproductive Health Matters 17(34):154-162, 2009
  16. UNAIDS/UNDP Policy brief: criminalization of HIV transmission. Available online at:, 2008

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A writer and advocate on a range of HIV-related issues, Edwin has a particular specialism in HIV and the criminal law. He works with national and international HIV organisations, including the International AIDS Society, GNP+ and UNAIDS, as well having as a long association with NAM as a writer on this topic and as the former editor of HIV Treatment Update. To visit Edwin's blog and respond to posts click here.

This content was checked for accuracy at the time it was written. It may have been superseded by more recent developments. NAM recommends checking whether this is the most current information when making decisions that may affect your health.
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