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Cherie Booth: Empower people, don't punish them

HIV is no longer a death sentence and yet, for so many of those living in poorer countries, it continues to destroy lives and kill people in their prime, particularly young girls and women.

The virus doesn't exist in isolation – it is exacerbated by individual circumstances and social conditions. Women are particularly at risk because in many places around the world they lack the information or skills they need to protect themselves both within society and in their personal relationships.

The result is that women are less able to insist on fidelity from their partners, and less able to practise safe sex. It is no wonder that Aids is today the leading cause of death globally among women of reproductive age.

There are two overlooked factors that we need to address to change this situation. We in the legal profession need to be aware of how legislation and law enforcement practices really affect women, particularly in areas related to protection from violence, family law, property and inheritance.

This week I chaired the first Commonwealth HIV and Human Rights lecture in which the focus was on how punitive laws increase the vulnerability to Aids of women and other marginalised groups, such as gay men, sex workers and drug users who inject.

We know that where there are laws protecting human rights, women and others living with HIV are better able to gain access to prevention, treatment, care and support programmes without fear of arrest or prosecution. Protecting public health and promoting human rights are mutually reinforcing strategies.

Working on the frontline, the International HIV/Aids Alliance is well aware of how increasingly the too-blunt tool of criminal law is used to penalise HIV exposure and transmission, and leads to women being prosecuted simply because they know they are infected with HIV. Of course it's wrong not to disclose your HIV status to a partner, but if this is to change, it's essential to take account of the social and cultural factors that stop women from disclosing their status to their partner. Women who have no income often fear violence and abandonment if they openly address their infection.

Where women have few options, prosecution is a crude punishment. It merely feeds stigma, rather than providing protection. Women can find themselves blamed unfairly for bringing the disease into the home, but because they have more contact with the health system through pregnancy and childbirth, they are more likely to know their HIV status than their male partners, and so are more likely to face prosecution. Prosecution can result not only in imprisonment, but eviction, loss of property and inheritance as well.

But whether it's the man or the woman who is responsible for transmission, there's no doubt it is women who hold the key to bringing HIV and Aids under control. That means enabling both sexes to protect themselves from infection and to access their legal, human and economic rights.

This is why it is vital to provide opportunities for women to gain financial independence, to start a business, for example, so they can support themselves and their children. It is through economic empowerment that women can avoid the cycle of financial dependence that inhibits them from either protecting themselves from HIV or from addressing their infection. Earning money increases a woman's social status and gives her a more influential voice both in the community and in wider society. The financial empowerment of women must go hand in hand with the development of laws and policies that reduces their vulnerability to HIV without fear of discrimination or adverse legal consequences.

Cherie Booth QC sits as a part-time judge, and campaigns on human rights issues

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