How These Laws Impact the Lives of Women with HIV
By Teresa Sullivan, PWN-USA Board Member
Now that the United States has access to over 36 medicines for the treatment of HIV, people are living longer and healthier lives. Scientific research has shown that people living with HIV, when adhering to their meds, have almost no chance of ever transmitting HIV. We have come a long way from the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in the early ‘80s, when the only medicine to treat HIV was AZT.
National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day is held each year on March 10. According to the National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day website, out of 1.2 million people living with HIV in the US today, one in four are women. Women of color account for the majority of new HIV cases that occur in the US. Today, many women living with HIV still have to deal with the stigma of living with HIV, which is unacceptable. As a woman living with HIV for over 20 years, I find that some women stop dating, stop falling in love, and stop having healthy sex because once they’re told that they tested positive for HIV, they have to deal with not only the internal fear of being HIV positive but also the possibility of being stigmatized, and even facing bodily harm, in the community.
According to PWN-USA’s Criminalization factsheet: As of June 2014, 39 US states or territories have HIV-specific criminal statutes, or have brought HIV-related charges, criminalizing HIV exposure and transmission through consensual sex, needle sharing, or through spitting and biting despite the fact that spitting and biting have not been shown to pose a significant risk of transmitting HIV. Some states do not have HIV-specific laws, but people living with HIV have been prosecuted for HIV exposure and transmission under general criminal laws like attempted murder, assault and in some cases bio-terrorism. A majority of these laws do not require proving the intent to transmit HIV.
As the Co-Coordinator for a signature program at Philadelphia FIGHT called Project TEACH (Treatment Education Activists Combating HIV), I educate many women on the importance of being 100 percent adherent to their HIV med regimens. They graduate from my program knowing that, if they adhere to their HIV regimen and the levels of HIV in their body are low, they have basically no probability of transmitting HIV to sexual partners.
However, many women I have educate continue to have long conversations with me about the fears they still have of being in a healthy sexual relationship, because of the HIV criminalization laws. Even when the sex was consensual, even if chance of transmission of HIV is low, these fears of prosecution and its consequences are real for so many women living with HIV: for example, loss of custody of their children; spending large amounts of time in prison just for being HIV positive; and the fear of being placed on a sex offender registry, which has all sorts of negative results, including having the information appear on their driver’s license, and not being allowed to live close to schools – which hurts women as well as their own children.
Finally, if women are charged under HIV criminalization laws, in many states it makes it hard for women living with HIV to seek employment, therefore making it hard for them to support their family, which is a human right.
National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day is an annual observance to recognize the impact of HIV on women and girls. I encourage all women, living with HIV or not, to come together to build a campaign to remove HIV criminalization laws from their states. HIV is not a crime. Having HIV criminal laws grounded in fear that negatively impact the lives of women living with HIV is a crime.
Teresa Sullivan is a Board Member of PWN-USA and a Senior Member of PWN-USA’s Philadelphia Regional Chapter.
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