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Erika Castellanos' speech on HIV and the Law at HLPF 2017

New York, July 12th 2017

Erika Castellanos, our Director of Programs, gave a highly acclaimed speech at the session “The Global Commission on HIV and the Law at Five: Reflecting on Progress, Challenges and Opportunities to End AIDS by 2030” in the context of the High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development. 

In 2010, the United Nations Development Programme, on behalf of the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS convened the Global Commission on HIV and the Law. The mandate of this independent commission was to develop evidence informed rights based recommendations for effective responses to the HIV epidemic.  Erika, who has been living with HIV for 22 years,  gave opening remarks at the session explaining the process and her personal involvement in country and regional consultations with governments and stakeholders, praising this effort as being a unique and critical initiative for civil societies and governments.

The Commission’s final report, HIV and the Law: Risks, Rights and Health, published in 2012, contained recommendations for scaling up human rights programming in the context of HIV.   Erika emphasized the importance of adequate laws necessary to promote safe, protective social and legal environments, as opposed to the law being used to criminalize people or increase their vulnerability to HIV.    

The law can both be a protective shield or a punitive sword Erika stressed, pointing out to the contradictory outcome the law has in different countries and regions, that ended up dehumanizing extremely vulnerable populations, such as sex workers, MSM, prisoners, migrants and transgender people. Depending on the perspective upon which the law is being applied, attempts to halt new infections are eager to cause a boomerang effect by criminalizing the very same population it plans to protect.

Despite the fact there are still countries ignoring protective laws, this report and multi-sectorial dialogues have provided civil society a tool to hold states accountable.  In many cases we had no idea that such policies and laws even existed and that they were their to protect us. This gave birth to a new intervention among persons with HIV: Legal Literacy!

Another issue Erika brought to the forefront was the report’s narrow idea of key populations affected, including the dangerous fallacy that reduces the concept of transgender people strictly to transgender women in almost every UN report. Transgender men are almost out of the debate.  Other gender diverse individuals are being ignored, are being denied services, can’t participate in studies and are totally excluded from prevention programs.

The above remark was followed by Erika’s call to legal reform for trans people’s access to gender recognition and health care. …and would ask all of you present here to join Global Action for Trans Equality in its call to depathologize trans and gender diverse people, as a requirement to fulfill our human rights.

Ultimately, Erika celebrated the program’s massive achievements to date but emphasized on the missing issues – to outlaw all forms of discrimination, to repeal punitive laws, decriminalize sexual behaviours and a reform to approach drug use among others. The 2030 is just around the corner.