The recent case of the German pop star, Nadja Benaissa hit headlines this month as she appeared in court accused of grievous bodily harm and aggravated assault. She may face up to 10 years in jail if found guilty.
According to reports Benaissa was just 17 years old when she discovered she was HIV positive. Not an easy thing to manage at any age, let alone when you are vulnerable and living on the streets. It’s no wonder she decided not to tell anyone.
Thousands of delegates met at the international AIDS conference last month in Vienna to call for human rights to be at the centre of our global AIDS response. Just weeks later we see a case where a woman’s human right to privacy is being violated.
Dragged away in handcuffs Benaissa was publicly arrested. What threat to society did she actually pose? Was this approach really necessary?
In many of the countries where Alliance partners work, criminalisation disproportionately impacts women who are often aware of their status before men because of a routine visits to an antenatal clinic where they are tested for HIV which can increase a woman’s liability to be prosecuted.
Nadja has faced what so many individuals who are HIV positive face. A lack of dignity and respect for her status. She has encountered what she so feared, being stigmatised and vilified.
The way this case has been approached has profound public health consequences. We know that people are more willing to access HIV testing services when they are assured that such services are confidential. The more people who know their status the more people will be able to protect others and the more people will access treatment. If people are being prosecuted for exposing others to HIV, it may be undesirable for them to know their HIV status.
Criminalising HIV transmission should be limited to individuals who ‘purposely and maliciously transmit HIV with the intent to harm’, as UNAIDS urges, not to individuals who are scared of the associated stigma and discrimination.
We have no evidence that criminalisation acts as a deterrent and applying criminal law doesn’t reduce the spread of HIV. What we do know is that for public health programmes to work, we must increase access to prevention information and end the continuing discrimination of people living with HIV. Proving that an accused person was HIV positive at the time of an alleged offense as well as proving who infected whom and when is a serious challenge. We wait with concern to see the outcome of this tragic case.