The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) has welcomed a new law passed by the Indian Parliament providing strong legal protection against HIV-related discrimination.
The law provides a broad legislative framework for the response to HIV in India and is the first national HIV law in South Asia. The legislation prohibits discrimination against people living with and affected by HIV in a range of settings, including employment, education, housing and health care, as well as with regard to the holding of public or private office, access to insurance and freedom of movement. It also bans unfair treatment of people living with and affected by HIV with regard to accessing public facilities, such as shops, restaurants, hotels, public entertainment venues, public facilities and burial grounds.
“This is an important step forward for people living with and affected by HIV in India and around the world,” said Steve Kraus, Director, UNAIDS Regional Support Team for Asia and the Pacific. “This legislation begins to remove barriers and empowers people to challenge violations of their human rights.”
Significantly, the legislation contains provisions to increase access to justice for people affected by HIV, including obligations for health-care institutions to establish complaints mechanisms and a health ombudsman supported by special procedures to be followed in courts.
The law also protects the rights of people affected by HIV to informed consent (including for any sterilization procedures), to confidentiality and to a safe working environment, and promotes the delivery of critical harm reduction interventions, including condoms, comprehensive injection safety requirements and opioid substitution therapy.
The process of drafting the legislation began in 2002 and involved consultations with and inputs by various stakeholders, including people living with HIV and affected communities, human rights organizations, government departments and members of parliament, before finally being presented to parliament in 2014. UNAIDS has supported efforts throughout the legislation’s long journey. The law will come into force when it is published in the Official Gazette.
Civil society organizations welcomed the legislation; however, they also voiced concerns over a provision that appeared to limit the government’s obligation to provide HIV treatment.
The government has since announced a “treat all” policy in parliament, guaranteeing free antiretroviral therapy for everyone.
“We declare that anybody tested positive will be treated,” said J.P. Nadda, Indian Minister for Health and Family Welfare. “This is the level of commitment with which we are working and with which we will be going forward.”
HIV treatment not only protects the health of people living with HIV, but also prevents onward transmission of the virus. UNAIDS recognizes everyone’s right to health, which includes the provision of antiretroviral therapy to people living with HIV throughout their life.
With 2.1 million people living with HIV in 2015, India has the third largest HIV epidemic in the world and the largest in the Asia and the Pacific region.
Support for the HIV bill has been bipartisan. “It has been a long struggle for everyone working towards having an HIV-specific legislation as it would guarantee the right to dignity and non-discrimination for people affected by HIV,” said Oscar Fernandes, Member of Parliament and President of the Forum of Parliamentarians on AIDS in India.
In June 2016, Member States of the United Nations committed in the Political Declaration on Ending AIDS to “promoting laws and policies that ensure the enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for children, adolescents and young people, particularly those living with, at risk of and affected by HIV, so as to eliminate the stigma and discrimination that they face.”
UNAIDS urges all governments to fully implement the human rights of people living and affected by HIV, including by providing strong legal protections and implementing programmes to end discrimination and advance access to justice.