The Criminalization and Prosecution of HIV-status Non-Disclosure: Towards a Feminist Perspective

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Devon Ridge is a Woman and HIV/AIDS Initiative (WHAI) worker at The AIDS Network, working with service providers to build capacity in addressing women’s HIV-related needs. November 25th to 28th is HIV & AIDS Awareness Week—an opportunity to deepen our understanding of how HIV impacts the lives of women. This blog post is a great place to start!

A man will say, ‘Oh, you’re leaving me? Well, I’m actually going to have you charged with non-disclosure.’ And that’s a really difficult thing to prove — that you disclosed your HIV status — so that’s quite terrifying for women. It’s actually keeping them in relationships and keeping them sometimes in situations of violence for fear that they’re going to end up getting prosecuted.

— Anne-Marie DiCenso, Prisoners’ HIV/AIDS Support Action Network (PASAN)

The discussion around the criminalization of HIV non-disclosure deserves special attention by feminists because of the unprecedentedly zealous application of sexual assault law in these cases. Criminalization affects an HIV-positive woman in many ways, including limiting how she can engage in relationships and her options for dealing with abusive dynamics in which HIV-status is used for control over her.

In thinking about this issue from a feminist perspective, it’s important for us to remember that:

  • Women in Ontario are one of the largest growing populations of PHAs (people living with HIV/AIDS). In 2009, women represent 26% of new HIV infections in Ontario
  • PHAs are a stigmatized group. Women experience unique social stigma and vulnerabilities related to patriarchy and intersecting oppressions
  • Less than 6% of sexual assaults are reported to police
  • Less than 1% of sexual assaults result in conviction
  • Women most at risk of being scrutinized/prosecuted include: Indigenous women, racialized women, immigrant, refugee and non-status women, sex workers, young women, low income women, pregnant women, women using substances
  • 83% of women with disabilities will be sexually abused at least once in their lives
  • Violence against Aboriginal women is at least three times that of non-Aboriginal women
  • Over 13 women in Canada have been convicted of aggravated sexual assault, the most serious form of sexual assault under the law, punishable up to life in prison and involves being placed on the sex offender registry

Top five ways to learn more about HIV, women, and criminalization!

1. Go to this event!

The Criminalization of HIV Non-Disclosure: Panel Discussion

When: Wednesday, November 26th at 4:30pm
Where:
Crowne Plaza Hotel in Hamilton

More Info:
Does your work involve providing legal support, counsel, or advocacy for community members in Hamilton? Are you a service provider whose clients are impacted by the criminalization of HIV non-disclosure?

Please join Cécile Kazatchkine from the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, Lenore Lukasik-Foss, Director of SACHA, and The AIDS Network to discuss a very important issue for the Hamilton community: The Criminalization of HIV Non-disclosure.

This event is complimentary and a part of HIV/AIDS Awareness Week. Light hors d’oeuvres & refreshments provided.

Space is limited, please register here: HIV Non-Disclosure Criminalization, Nov 26 in Hamilton.

2. Watch this amazing documentary!

This forty-five minute documentary – Positive Women Exposing Justice – explores the experience of women living with HIV in Canada.

3. Check out these two resources from the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network!

▪ People living with HIV can be prosecuted for non-disclosure even if they had no intent to harm their partner.

▪ Criminal charges for HIV non-disclosure can be laid (and have been in numerous cases) even if HIV is not transmitted.

b.) Women and the Criminalization of HIV Non-Disclosure

Given the gendered power dynamics in many relationships, the prevalence of violence against women in our society, and ongoing HIV-related stigma, many women worry about the reaction of their partners if they reveal that they are living with HIV. Fear of violence, abandonment or rejection can lead some women to conceal their status or delay disclosure. A recent Canadian study reports that some HIV-positive women encounter problems with male partners after an HIV diagnosis; women “described verbal, psychological or physical abuse, which either followed or was aggravated by disclosure of their HIV status to their partners.

4. Understand how this issue impacts the Hamilton community, a ‘hot-spot’ for HIV non-disclosure criminalization

Read the AIDS Action Now Think Twice campaign

Canada is a world leader in targeting and criminalinzing people living with HIV.  People are being charged with aggravated sexual assault and thrown in prison for not disclosing their status, even when there was virtually no risk of transmission. Our laws are based on stigma and fear.

5. Keep up-to-date on HIV/AIDS information to prevent the spread of myths and stigma

— Devon Ridge

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