HIV Criminalization Awareness Day: fighting for justice and understanding

February 28 is HIV Criminalization Awareness Day. It has been observed since 2022 and was organized by the Sero Project, a non-profit organization, in collaboration with the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation. The day commemorates the criminalization, stigma, and discrimination of people living with HIV/AIDS and calls for action to overcome these issues.

Since the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, the encounter with the immunodeficiency virus has sparked not only a medical struggle but also social, cultural, and legal challenges. One of which is the criminalization of HIV, where people are criminalized because of their HIV status or for transmitting the virus to others without warning or consent. The criminalization of HIV has serious consequences. It can prevent people from seeking health care or getting tested for HIV for fear of being arrested or discriminated against. It hinders effective HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment, increasing the risk of spreading the virus.

Although HIV criminalization is gradually decreasing in many countries, stigma and discrimination in the Eastern Europe and Central Asia region remain serious problems that require further efforts by governments, civil society organizations, and society at large. But there have been positive developments in this complex process in recent years:

In Tajikistan, an important step towards decriminalization of HIV was taken in early 2024 – a new resolution of the Plenum of the country’s Supreme Court calls on the judiciary to more objectively consider issues related to criminal liability under Article 125 of the Criminal Code of Tajikistan. The ruling obliges courts to be guided by new norms that take into account international standards and recommendations, including the concept of “Undetectable = Untransmissible” approved by UNAIDS and WHO. According to this concept, people living with HIV, receiving antiretroviral treatment, and having an undetectable viral load are unable to transmit HIV.

According to information provided in the Eurasian Women’s Network on AIDS report “HIV Criminalization Scan in Eastern Europe and Central Asia 2018-2022”, in Kazakhstan, a draft law “On Amendments to the Criminal Code of the Republic of Kazakhstan on Liability for Transmission of Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV)” was developed in 2022. This proposal envisages the complete abolition of Article 118 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Kazakhstan due to the need to implement the Concept of Legal Policy of the Republic of Kazakhstan until 2030 and to bring national criminal legislation in line with international standards and recommendations in the area of criminalization of HIV transmission.

In Uzbekistan, the situation with HIV criminalization remains one of the most serious in the region, and improving the situation requires the joint efforts of the Government, civil society organizations, and the international community. Under article 113 of the country’s Criminal Code, “the spread of a venereal disease or HIV infection/AIDS, according to which knowingly exposing a person to a risk of infection or exposure to HIV infection/AIDS is punishable by imprisonment from five to eight years. And infection of another person with HIV infection/AIDS due to non-fulfillment or improper fulfillment of professional duties by a person – is punished by a fine from one hundred to two hundred minimum wages or compulsory community service from three hundred sixty to four hundred eighty hours or corrective labor up to two years or restriction of freedom from two to five years or imprisonment up to five years.” 

In the country, HIV criminalization is manifested through various forms of discrimination in access to medical care, employment, education, and other spheres of life, but thanks to the work of non-governmental organizations, the situation within society and at the state and international levels is gradually changing. Thus, in January 2022, the Eurasian Women’s Network on AIDS, in cooperation with the Alliance for Public Health, presented an alternative report on the implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women by the Republic of Uzbekistan. This report was submitted for the 81st session of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. As a result of its consideration of the report, in its concluding recommendations to the 6th periodic report of Uzbekistan, the Committee made the following recommendations:

– Decriminalize the endangerment and transmission of HIV/AIDS through sexual contact between consenting adults. This includes repealing articles 113 of the Criminal Code, as well as articles 57 and 58 of the Code of Administrative Offenses.

– Repeal discriminatory legislation that denies women infected with HIV/AIDS the right to adoption, guardianship, and foster care.

In Georgia, under current legislation, persons living with HIV can be held liable for transmitting the virus or endangering others. According to Article 131 of the Criminal Code of Georgia, established as early as 1999, a person who is aware of his/her HIV-positive status is obliged to notify his/her spouse/sexual partner of his/her HIV status. Despite the existence of this article for a long time, data on criminal cases initiated under it until 2018 is virtually non-existent. According to information provided by the Supreme Court, there have been no prosecutions under Article 131 between 2018 and 2022.

Around the world, organizations are holding events, awareness campaigns, and actions to support HIV Criminalization Awareness Day. They are calling on governments and civil society to take action to protect the rights and dignity of people living with HIV because it is critical to ensure that the rights of this key group are protected and to focus on medical care, awareness, and education rather than punitive measures. It is worth remembering: not just February 28 – but every day is an important day to fight for justice, respect, and the elimination of discrimination.

Also read:

Celebrating LGBTIQ history month in Eastern Europe and Central Asia: a journey of resilience and progress

Empowering social justice in Eastern Europe and Central Asia: a call to collective action