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To End AIDS, We Must Fight Injustice

By: Ralf Jürgens

Last week, on World AIDS Day, there was reason to celebrate.

Over 10 million people now benefit from the life-saving medicines that have transformed AIDS from a death sentence to a chronic, manageable disease. As a result, the number of people dying from AIDS continues to fall. The number of new HIV infections has dropped in many parts of the world. Some people even predict that, if we maintain current HIV investments, we can hope to see the end of AIDS within our lifetime.

But can we afford to be so optimistic?

Many people are excluded by society or criminalized—like those who use drugs, sex workers, Roma, men who have sex with men, and more. Many people attach a heavy stigma to HIV and discriminate against people living with the virus. These factors push people with HIV, and those at high risk of infection, away from the health care system—denying them prevention, care, and treatment, including life-saving HIV medicines.

Those who work to end AIDS are increasingly recognizing that in order to succeed—achieving zero AIDS-related deaths and zero new infections—we must also work to end discrimination and other human rights abuses.

Legal empowerment programs like that of UGANET in the above video are key to this goal.

They show how it is possible to integrate legal support into health services, and to promote access to justice of people living with, or vulnerable to, HIV. When people learn about their rights from a paralegal who is also a trusted community member, and when they can access the law conveniently—and not through some unfamiliar 9-5 legal practice a day’s journey away—barriers to their health care recede.

For more than eight years the Open Society Foundations has supported access to justice programs as a health and human rights intervention and monitored their effectiveness. Recently we undertook an in-depth evaluation of the impact of such programs for people living with HIV and their caregivers.

Increasingly, the public health benefits of these programs are being recognized. The Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS now says that access to justice programs are key interventions that should be part of every national AIDS program, while the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria has included a human rights objective in its recent strategy.

Such recognition, however, is only a start.

It is high time to move from rhetoric to real action on HIV and human rights.

This means moving beyond support for a small number of access to justice projects in only a few countries. It means ensuring that governments around the world—with outside support if needed—include these programs in their national AIDS strategies and bring them to scale. This is one of the reasons why Open Society is supporting the inclusion of justice as a post-2015 millennium development goal.

I encourage you to watch the above video and get inspired. See what’s possible when people become empowered to protect their rights and their health.