The U.S.-based Gates Foundation this week announced a $100 million grant to combat the HIV/AIDS epidemic in India.
Bill Gates is right that the AIDS epidemic is poised to explode in India, said Joanne Csete, director of the HIV/AIDS program at Human Rights Watch. But his generosity will be undermined if the Indian government doesn´t do something about the widespread violence against people who are affected by the disease.
Human Rights Watch has 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.
Violence and harassment of these outreach workers is one of the best ways to ensure that the epidemic will spread quickly, Human Rights Watch said. Persecuting people affected by HIV/AIDS drives them further underground and makes it harder to treat and prevent the disease.
In New York tonight, November 13, Human Rights Watch honors Meena Seshu for her work combating HIV/AIDS and human rights abuse in India.
"HIV/AIDS in India is an important human rights issue," said Csete. "The Indian government and international donors need to recognize that fact if they are really going to beat this epidemic."
The Indian government clings to the idea that the epidemic is limited to high-risk groups such as sex workers, drug users and truck drivers and that targeting them with information about HIV transmission and condoms is the best strategy to contain the epidemic further. But this analysis no longer reflects the reality of
AIDS, at least for some Indian states, where the epidemic is in the general population, Human Rights Watch said.
In these states, said Csete, Women who have sex only with their husbands may be the group at highest risk of HIV transmission.
The long-standing subordination of women and girls in Indian society takes on lethal dimensions with the rapid spread of HIV/AIDS. Men, unlike women, can experiment with sex outside of marriage without any social stigma but women do not even have the status to demand condom use of husbands who may bring sexually transmitted diseases home, Human Rights Watch said.
People with HIV/AIDS continue to face abuse and discrimination in the health care system, and many have no hope of treatment for opportunistic infections, let alone antiretroviral medicines.
It´s a sad irony that India is one of the biggest producers of the drugs that have transformed the lives of people with AIDS in wealthy countries, said Csete. But for millions of Indians, access to these medicines is a distant dream.