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Zimbabwe: Abusive Policies Disrupt Progress on HIV/AIDS

The Zimbabwean government’s abusive practices, coupled with inadequate health and social welfare policies, are undermining the country’s progress in the fight against AIDS, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

Despite a drop in HIV prevalence rates from 25 to 20 percent between 2000 and 2005, Zimbabwe is still battling a serious HIV/AIDS crisis. Up to 1.6 million people are living with HIV in Zimbabwe, but only 25,000 of the 350,000 people in immediate need of antiretroviral drugs have access to treatment. More than 3,000 people are dying per week.

The 72-page report, “No Bright Future: Government Failures, Human Rights Abuses and Squandered Progress in the Fight Against AIDS in Zimbabwe,” documents how abusive policies and practices by the government are fueling the HIV/AIDS epidemic, increasing vulnerability to infection, and obstructing access to treatment.

“Zimbabwe has been hailed as a ‘success story’ in the fight against AIDS,” said Joe Amon, director of the HIV/AIDS program at Human Rights Watch. “But abusive government policies are blocking treatment for those who desperately need it and making even more people vulnerable to infection.”

The Zimbabwean government’s program of evictions has disrupted access to treatment and healthcare for many people living with HIV. Today, over a year after the evictions, hundreds of people living with HIV continue to live in appalling conditions, without shelter or in overcrowded houses. As a result many are left more prone to opportunistic infections such as pneumonia and tuberculosis. The evictions also interfered with HIV-prevention efforts; for example, police destroyed nearly 2,000 outlets providing condoms in the urban townships during the evictions. The government’s crackdown on the informal sector has also destroyed peoples’ livelihoods, increasing the risk of HIV infection for thousands, and further endangering the lives of those already infected.

Women, who are already harder hit than men by AIDS in Zimbabwe, have been particularly affected by the crackdown on the informal economy. Unable to sell produce or clothing by the side of the road, and unable to find a means to support themselves or their families, many are forced to engage in high-risk behaviors including sex work in order to survive, Human Rights Watch said.

In addition, the government of President Robert Mugabe has done little to prevent or prosecute domestic violence and violations of property and inheritance rights. These violations have perpetuated the greater vulnerability of women and the inability of those infected with HIV to seek and receive effective care.

“The Zimbabwean government must recognize the incendiary effect of human rights abuses on the HIV/AIDS epidemic,” said Amon. “Unless Mugabe’s government puts an end to these abuses, tens of thousands more people will become infected, and the gains it has achieved in the fight against AIDS will amount to nothing.”

At the same time, user fees for health services in state hospitals tripled in March while private sector doctors’ fees increased in April by 100 percent. However, the government does not provide sufficient information to the public on the criteria for exemptions from paying the user fees for those who cannot afford to pay. Instead, many poor and vulnerable people are denied exemptions by social welfare officers who fail to properly identify those most in need of assistance.

The government has recently pledged to scale up access to antiretroviral treatment from 25,000 to 70,000 people by the end of the year. But thousands of people are unable to access treatment because of a lack of public information about antiretroviral therapy policies. The government has neglected to inform individuals who test HIV-positive about the eligibility criteria for antiretroviral therapy and it has failed to ensure that medical providers follow national antiretroviral therapy guidelines. These failures have resulted in people being turned away from the treatment and care that they need and are eligible for.

Although nongovernmental organizations are central to the fight against HIV/AIDS in Zimbabwe, they are often subjected to harassment and intimidation by the government’s central intelligence officers and local government officials. The restrictive political environment in the country has prevented these activists from properly advocating for the human rights of people living with HIV/AIDS.

The report also examines the role of the international donor community which has significantly pulled back direct assistance to Zimbabwe since 2000 due to the government’s poor human rights record and failed economic policies. The report calls on the international community to increase funding to programs working with people living with HIV/AIDS. At the same time, donors should continue to call on the Zimbabwean government to respect human rights and provide an environment that is conducive to effectively addressing the crisis.

Human Rights Watch called on the Zimbabwean government to respect the rights of its citizens and show its commitment to fighting the HIV/AIDS pandemic by providing equitable and nondiscriminatory access to healthcare for all people, reversing those economic and social policies that have the effect of further impoverishing vulnerable sections of the population, ceasing policies that prevent and restrict advocacy on the part of people living with HIV/AIDS, and supporting the efforts of international and local organizations providing treatment and care to people living with HIV/AIDS.

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