On the wrong beat
In a thirty-three-page report released as the XIV International AIDS Conference begins in Barcelona, Spain, Human Rights Watch documented numerous cases of police harassment and violence against HIV/AIDS outreach workers in India. The HIV/AIDS prevention workers help those at highest risk of getting AIDS, especially women in prostitution and men who have sex with men. “The Indian government is shooting its own AIDS program in the foot,” said Joanne Csete, director of the HIV/AIDS and Human Rights Program at Human Rights Watch, and the author of the report. “Undermining prevention among high-risk people is a sure way to speed along the spread of AIDS among these persons and in the general population.”
Several organizations in India have succeeded in empowering women in prostitution to demand condom use of their clients. One such organization, SANGRAM in Sangli, Maharashtra, helped AIDS educators distribute 350,000 condoms per month in twelve districts among sex workers and others at risk. But in recent months, police abuse of SANGRAM’s workers as well as of others in Bangalore and Tamilnadu has sabotaged their life-saving work. In Bangalore, HIV/AIDS peer educators working with women in prostitution were beaten severely by the police. One AIDS worker had hot chili powder rubbed into her eyes and vagina. Police perpetrators of these crimes have gone unpunished.
Men who have sex with men live in deep stigma in India, and AIDS outreach workers who provide information and condoms to these men also suffer abuse at the hands of police. HIV/AIDS peer educators who work with these men in four states reported numerous incidents of harassment and extortion of money and sex by the police as well as detention based on trumped-up charges. This abuse has at times shut down AIDS prevention work among these vulnerable persons. “The government provides condoms and sometimes money to groups doing AIDS outreach work with high-risk people and says this is a priority for AIDS prevention, but the official statements ring hollow in the face of police violence,” said Csete. “The big winner here is the AIDS epidemic, which will continue to kill millions unless this abuse is stopped.”
India’s national AIDS program is funded largely by a $191 million World Bank loan, the terms of which include protecting the rights of persons in high-risk populations. However, an antiquated sodomy law on the books in India since the colonial period is frequently used by the police to justify their actions against AIDS workers reaching out to men who have sex with men. Human Rights Watch called on the government of India to repeal the law and to ensure protection of HIV/AIDS outreach workers.
The government estimates that about 4 million persons are living with HIV/AIDS in India, though many experts think this figure greatly understates the reality. In five states of India, including the giant states of Maharashtra and Tamilnadu, the AIDS epidemic has spread into the general population, according to government figures.