As Russia’s HIV/AIDS epidemic spreads, thousands of HIV-positive mothers and their children face pervasive discrimination and abuse, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

Russian law bans such abuse, but the Russian government is not protecting women with HIV and their children from widespread discrimination by health care and child care providers.

Widespread fear of people with HIV/AIDS throughout Russia has contributed to the abandonment and indefinite segregation of growing numbers of children born to HIV-positive mothers. The isolation of these children has nothing to do with medical science and everything to do with discrimination and stigma, which are the result of misinformation that the government has done little to reverse.

The 41-page report, “Positively Abandoned: Stigma and Discrimination Against HIV-Positive Mothers and Their Children in Russia,” focuses on the discrimination that these women face, as do their children, many of whom are abandoned to the care of the state.

Today, as Russia’s escalating HIV/AIDS epidemic reaches beyond high-risk groups to the general population, a growing number of expectant mothers and infants have been placed in the path of the virus. Since the Federal AIDS Center in Moscow first started recording these statistics annually in 1997, nearly 10,000 HIV-positive women have given birth, the vast majority of whom had their children since 2002.

The culture of fear surrounding HIV/AIDS has led to the women’s virtual isolation. Many choose to hide their diagnosis from co-workers, friends and family members rather than face the consequences.

“Russian law protects all HIV-positive people from discrimination, but the government has turned a blind eye to the very real discrimination these women and their children face,” said Lois Whitman, Children’s Rights director at Human Rights Watch. “The stigma of HIV/AIDS is with them everywhere: in the workplace, at school, at the neighbourhood clinic, even in their own homes.”

Discrimination is also present at the place where women need the most care: their local gynecological clinics. Instead of educating women about medication they can take to sharply reduce the risk of HIV transmission from mother to child, the doctors at neighborhood gynecological clinics are often ignorant or even belligerent. HIV-positive women interviewed reported being verbally abused by doctors and nurses, or even being denied treatment altogether.

Against this backdrop, many HIV-positive women must ask themselves a difficult question: whether to keep their children. The majority of infants born to HIV-positive mothers remain with their families. Their parents soon face the dilemma of getting their children into day care or school where, because of their family’s HIV-positive status, they are not welcome.

However, these problems are minor compared to those infants who are abandoned at birth. These children are placed in specialized orphanages for HIV-positive children or, even worse, isolated indefinitely in hospital wards.

The Russian Ministry of Health has recognized that the policy of segregating children with HIV is not only wrong, but illegal.

“Creating separate baby houses is a violation of the rights of these children,” one health ministry official told Human Rights Watch. “Even if the baby house for HIV-positive children is better than a regular one, it still enforces the stigma society attaches to the disease.”

Still, the Russian government refuses to harness the political will and commit the resources needed to protect its citizens living with HIV/AIDS and prosecute violations of the federal AIDS law.

The meager resources that the Russian government has contributed to the battle against HIV/AIDS has done little to educate the public or halt the spread of the rising epidemic. The only way to reverse the climate of fear surrounding HIV/AIDS is to prioritize it as a public policy.

Human Rights Watch called on President Vladimir Putin and the Russian government to address the problem publicly and end discriminatory practices against people living with HIV/AIDS in Russia that violate both Russian and international law.