Right to Reproductive Health of Women who Live with HIV/AIDS in the Americas

Hearing on the Reproductive Rights of Women with HIV/AIDS. Photo Courtesy of EmilyRose Johns, Human Rights Brief (Oct. 26, 2010).

Participants: Centro de Derechos Reproductivos, Red Legal Canadiense de VIH/SIDA, Fundación Xochiquetzal de Nicaragua
Countries:
Regional
Topics:
Rights of Women

Update:
On October 26, 2010, in a topical hearing addressing reproductive rights of women with HIV/AIDS in the Americas, four non-governmental organizations (“NGOs”) testified on the disparity in access to medical treatment and information for women living with HIV/AIDS. The NGOs, Center for Reproductive Rights , Fundación Xochiquetzal de Nicaragua, Red Balance , and Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, focused on Chile, Nicaragua,Mesoamerica, and Canada to exemplify the failures and the successes on reproductive rights issues facing women with HIV/AIDS.The right to health has been enshrined in several topical reports produced by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (“Commission”) as a right created by Article 5(1) (Right to Personal Integrity) of the American Convention on Human Rights (“ACRH”). This hearing also addressed the Right to Privacy (Article 11) as it applies to some medical treatments forced upon women with HIV/AIDS. The NGOs were seeking the Commission’s focus on this topic in further studies of health and women’s rights.

The NGOs represented a spectrum of progress, ranging from countries like Chile that have laws that aim to protect women with HIV/AIDS but lack the practical application of those laws, to countries such as Canada, which has a comprehensive program for testing but whose guidelines for that testing have been blurred into a potential Human Rights violation.

Suzannah Phillips, Legal Fellow at the Center for Reproductive Rights, presented a grave situation of women with HIV/AIDS in Chile. Despite legislation encouraging fair treatment, discrimination against women with HIV/AIDS is still rampant in Chile through forced sterilization, unreasonable wait times at urgent care and emergency facilities, and degradation of HIV-positive mothers.

Eugenia López Uribe, General Coordinator at Red Balance, described a similar situation in Mesoamerica. In addition to the practices discussed by Phillips, Lopez Uribe emphasized a lack of information that leads HIV positive women to avoid getting pregnant and seek out abortions for fear of transmission to their babies.

Ximena Gutierrez, with Fundación Xochiquetzal de Nicaragua, said that the discrimination against women with HIV/AIDS not only impacts the health of the women, it perpetuates poverty as well. Women with HIV/AIDS are routinely denied loans because lenders think they will die before paying the loan back.

Patricia Allard, Deputy Director of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, spoke about Canada’s success with a simple “VCT” testing program. VCT stands for Voluntary, Counseling, and Testing, which Allard cites as quite successful in provinces that implement it properly. Some provinces chose an “opt-out” method where the test is administered unless explicitly declined by the patient.

The representatives presented the Commissioners with two reports. The first, a report by the Center for Reproductive Rights called Dignity Denied, focused on the reproductive rights of women with HIV/AIDS in Chile. The second, Prevention and Protection, was provided by the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network and included twenty recommendations for improvement in HIV/AIDS testing.

The petitioners argued for increased access to information and to education, both about HIV/AIDS and in general, to support women’s ability to better control their sexual choices in relationships. They supported prevention policies, training of health care workers, and better testing practices.

The questions from the Commissioners were brief, with the promise to continue the conversation through email. Commissioner Dinah Shelton asked what good practices could be gleaned from the research done by the petitioners, and if there was case law that could give guidance on how to handle the educational and informational gap for women with HIV/AIDS. Commissioner and Rapporteur on the Rights of Women Luz Patricia Mejía Guerrero asked about the obstacles countries would face implementing HIV/AIDS programs directed at women.

Lilian Sepúlveda, Deputy Director of International Legal Program & Regional Manager for Latin America and the Caribbean at Center for Reproductive Rights, noted that Canada’s model, when used properly, is a good practices example for testing that should be encouraged. She used Chile as an example where a large obstacle exists: a gap between laws and practices. For instance, she noted, Chile does not provide sensitivity training for its health care workers.

Another obstacle is that women with HIV/AIDS and their special health issues are not visible enough. “HIV programs do not consider women’s reproductive rights at all,” Lopez Uribe said, following the hearing.

All petitioners encouraged the Commission’s swift action. Allard reiterated the urgency, noting that a strong international message by the Commission can impact Canada as they revisit their HIV testing guidelines.

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