For activist and community leader Kapul Robert* from Papua New Guinea (PNG) accessing HIV services is a constant challenge. “Papua New Guinea has a law that says sodomy is illegal and this law is contributing to the high-levels of stigma existing in society for both men who have sex with men (MSM) and transgender people.”
Almost all Pacific nations - and many countries across Asia-Pacific - have examples of laws and practices that criminalize people living with HIV or people most at risk of infection such as MSM, sex workers, transgender people, migrants and prisoners. Such punitive laws and policies sustain violence and discrimination and contribute to significant obstacles to access HIV-related services.
According to Mr Robert, who identifies as MSM, the general population of PNG would never be able to say they had sex with another man as they would immediately feel discriminated against. “It’s hard to talk about it,” he said. “If people are referred to government run rural clinics they just don’t go back because they are afraid to be judged. So they don’t receive their HIV test results or their medication,” he explains. “People don’t feel free under the law to identify themselves as MSM or transgender,” he added.
Responding to such challenges, leaders from government, health, legal and community sectors of seven Pacific Island nations - Fiji, Kiribati, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu and Vanuatu - came together for a consultation in Nadi, Fiji at the end of April. The objective was to identify concrete country-level actions needed to address punitive laws, law enforcement practices and weak access to justice to ensure greater access to HIV services.
“Pacific Island Countries have a history of leadership in the response to HIV, and have played a crucial role in building momentum for progress towards shared goals,” said the President of Fiji, His Excellency Ratu Epeli Nailatikau. “But we have less than 1 000 days left until the deadline for achieving HIV targets. This is an opportunity for us to identify key aspects of the legal environment that are hindering access to HIV services and to map out a time-bound action plan to address them.”
Through the consultation, examples of progress in a number of Pacific countries - including Fiji, New Zealand, and Australia, where a variety of punitive laws have been revised or lifted were heralded as exemplary for the region. Moving towards replication in other Pacific nations, actions identified in the country plans ranged from supporting the progress of HIV bills through Parliament to awareness-raising with the judiciary and law enforcement authorities on key legal and human rights issues.
“This is the first legal review of its kind in the Asia Pacific region,” said Director of UNAIDS Asia Pacific Steven Kraus. “We’ve seen nations coming together for meaningful community dialogue and peer exchange to identify priority actions. This leadership and solid inclusive strategy puts the Pacific in prime position on the route to ending the AIDS epidemic,” he added.
The developed action plans will be implemented at the country level, supported through partnership with the Secretariat of the Pacific Community RRRT (Regional Rights Resource Team), UNAIDS, UNDP, ILO and other regional partners.
For Kapul Robert, enhanced attention to legal reform and law enforcement within the context of the HIV response is strongly welcomed. “If the laws were changed the number of HIV cases among MSM would reduce. People would feel less discriminated against and be able to access HIV testing and antiretroviral treatment.”
*Name has been changed to protect the identity of the interviewee.