Success stories about combating HIV/AIDS in Asia are hard to come by. The United Nations continues to sound a warning that AIDS in Asia may even dwarf the calamity the disease inflicted on Africa unless governments step up their responses. AIDS experts in Asia often point to the success of Thailand's mobilization in the 1980s to contain what was one of the world's fastest growing epidemics. A hallmark of the Thai experience was the recognition of the importance of working with organizations of sex workers and other groups representing high-risk persons. These positive examples should be highlighted at the International AIDS Conference now under way in Barcelona.
Elsewhere in Asia, the fight against AIDS is in trouble. India has what could soon be one of the worst AIDS epidemics in the world, but the Indian government is shooting its own AIDS program in the foot. National authorities are allowing a police force long out of control to undermine the successful, pioneering work of nongovernmental organizations among people who are at high risk from AIDS.
Take, for example, Vamp, the apt acronym for a collective of women in prostitution or sex workers based in Nippani, Karnataka state. The women of Vamp represent the best hope for preventing HIV/AIDS deaths in India and a community that faces official abuse and stigmatization every day. Over the years and against all odds, Vamp and its parent organization Sangram built a network that provided 350,000 condoms every month and continuous HIV/AIDS information to prostitutes, their clients and the broader community. Enabling sex workers to act as a collective, giving them the power as a group to demand that their clients use condoms, was a brilliant strategy. Vamp is a stunning AIDS success story.
Recently, police began harassing, humiliating and violently seeking to break up the Vamp collective, apparently because it had become stronger and had purchased a house that gave it a higher profile in the community. Vamp members were run out of the town where they had worked for years, threatened by armed thugs, refused the privilege of filing official complaints because they are not "normal citizens" and otherwise stripped of their rights and possessions. When the dust settled, the big winner was HIV/AIDS, whose most effective front-line foes in Nippani were wiped out in a stroke of official prejudice, judgmentalism and violence.
Thanks to strong allies in many of the communities it touches, Vamp may be on the way to regaining its former strength, but its story is not isolated in India. Outreach workers in Samraksha, an organization with an impressive track record of AIDS prevention among prostitutes in Bangalore, suffered 27 incidents of police abuse from December 2001 to April 2002, including cases of AIDS educators sadistically abused in detention and others detained on trumped-up drug charges. Peer educators working with sex workers in two locations in Tamil Nadu also suffered severe beatings at the hands of local police, arbitrary arrest and inhumane conditions in detention in recent months.
Similar police harassment is faced by AIDS organizations around the country that are providing life-saving AIDS prevention services. "It's all about the police getting money and free sex," said an AIDS outreach worker in Tamil Nadu who, like many others, had his AIDS work interrupted by being arrested and detained for "promoting homosexuality" just because he provided condoms and information on HIV to men who have sex with men.
The Indian penal code doesn't help. Section 377 of the code, based on a 19th-century British law, effectively criminalizes sex between men. This law and a long history in India of marginalization of men who have sex with men give police enormous leeway to harass, arrest and detain these men and also HIV/AIDS educators who reach out to them.
The Naz Foundation (India) Trust, a New Delhi-based organization, now has a petition before the New Delhi High Court to repeal section 377. It would make sense for the state and central-level leaders of government AIDS programs, as well as the United Nations and all the donor countries investing in AIDS work in India, to trumpet their support of section 377's repeal, which would dramatically improve the environment for AIDS prevention in this high-risk group. But so far the silence has been deafening.
The World Bank underwrites India's national AIDS program with a $191 million loan. In the loan agreement, the bank and the government of India both pledged to respect the human rights of "marginalized groups at high risk" of HIV transmission, but there is no sign that any resource is being spent to monitor human-rights abuses suffered by these groups and by AIDS outreach workers who aim to assist them.
The investment made to combat the epidemic by both the Indian government and donor institutions in India will go down the drain if the police continue abusing AIDS outreach workers and those they serve. The Barcelona AIDS conference should send a wake-up call to the Indian government and its donors, reminding them that the fight against AIDS must also be a fight to protect human rights. ---
*Ms. Csete is director of the HIV/AIDS and human rights program at Human Rights Watch in New York and the author of a just-released report on violence against AIDS workers.