28 April 2016

Burundi: New Tool Promotes Human Rights of People Most At Risk of HIV Infection

Photo: International AIDS Society/Steve Forrest
Aids activists at the opening of the 20th International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Australia, are clear on what it will take to end the pandemic.

A human right is a freedom of some kind - for example to choose how you live or express yourself - but many people, particularly in Burundi, do not know or understand their rights.

They are something to which everyone is entitled as a human being. The basic principle of human rights is that everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect, regardless of race, gender, disability or any other characteristic. Access to food, education and healthcare among other basic needs, are also rights to which all humans are entitled.

Yet many people living with, and most at risk of, HIV face a high risk of having their human rights violated, particularly when it comes to accessing HIV prevention and treatment services.

To expose such human rights abuses and help remedy them, the International HIV/AIDS Alliance, in collaboration with BENETECH, has developed a tool called REAct (Rights Evidence Action), which is now being used in a number of countries, including Burundi, Zimbabwe, India, Myanmar and Lebanon. It is a community-based system, which monitors and documents human rights violations and the obstacles people face in accessing HIV and healthcare services.

It is proving particularly helpful in showing how people who are most at risk of HIV infection, such as sex workers and men who have sex with men, are often subject to human rights abuses. The evidence is used to support advocacy for these groups and the REAct project also provides some financial assistance, such as paying fines for those who have been jailed.

"React is a very important tool because it allows us to denounce violations of human rights and help these people as well," said Mona, a transgender person and a coordinator of REAct in Burundi.

Sex worker denied treatment

REActors are in charge of collecting, monitoring and documenting cases of human rights violations.* Among the cases collected is that of a 20-year-old sex worker and single mother, living with HIV in the eastern area of Burundi. When she was imprisoned in November 2015 for three days, she was beaten and tortured by the police.

During her imprisonment, the woman was deprived of her HIV medication, even though it had been reported to the police that she needed it. She was also separated from her child, who was a month old at the time of the incident. The child was being treated to ensure she didn't develop HIV (which can be passed to babies from their mothers during pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding) but this enforced separation from her mother interrupted her treatment.

"Until now, I do not know if my child is HIV positive or not," the woman said, expressing her sadness. After analysing the case, the lawyer noted that there had been damage to human life. "The right to security was violated, physical integrity was violated," he said. "There was also the violation of the right to health and healthcare of the mother and her child."

Homophobia and discrimination

Another case collected by REActors is that of a transgender person, also in eastern Burundi, who was not received when she went to a health clinic because of her appearance. She was also refused a national identity card and fired from her job under false pretenses. In this case, several rights were violated: the right to health, the right to equality of all before the law and the right to work.

A third case is that of a 16-year-old gay boy, who was imprisoned arbitrarily and subjected to an attempted rape while in prison. According to the lawyer, the government failed to protect the boy by imprisoning him with adults when he is still a minor.

The boy was also forced to undergo an HIV test by the host family who took him in (because his own family had rejected him) as condition of living with them. This violates Burundi's law on HIV, which states that people should undergo testing voluntarily. The fact that the boy cannot receive treatment in his locality is also a violation of his right to health and healthcare, the lawyer argued.

Our rights, our dignity, our freedoms

These cases highlight the ongoing human rights violations that many people most at risk of HIV infection experience.

"The response to these violations should not be a punishment. We should educate communities, administrative officials and security forces on human rights and to respect people's freedom of life choices, especially in localities where many of the violations happen," said Mona, the coordinator of REAct in Burundi.

There is still some way to go to ensure respect for human rights in the community, but REAct is helping build a body of evidence for advocacy, which can be used to make state and non-state actors accountable.

One gay man, who wanted to remain anonymous, said: "I would like to launch a resounding call to all people in Burundi, to address people from most at risk groups with dignity. Before being homosexual, we are human beings and we have rights like others. I want to call on all men who have sex with men to organise campaigns against homophobia."

*All cases shared in this article have been documented from the testimonies of the people involved and have been confirmed by lawyers.

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