Human rights are the foundation for ending inequality and ending the AIDS epidemic

Human rights inequalities and barriers, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, are hampering progress towards ending AIDS as a global public health threat by 2030. They facilitate HIV transmission by increasing vulnerability to HIV and limiting access to health services, especially for gay men and other men who have sex with men, transgender people, people who use drugs, sex workers, women and girls.

At the special event “From Promises to Action: Scaling Up Efforts to Combat Human Rights Obstacles, Including HIV Stigma and Discrimination,” held on June 9 at the UN High-Level Meeting on AIDS in New York, panellists highlighted the urgent need to attract long-term investment and transformative action in the areas of human rights, stigma and discrimination, especially with regard to discriminatory criminal laws to overcome structural and social barriers and ultimately eliminate inequalities.

Bridging inequalities is a human rights imperative and a public health need. Yet despite repeated commitments, barriers in human rights leading to inequalities, such as stigma, discrimination, violence and punitive laws continue to undermine the HIV response.

Panellists shared good practices, discussed how human rights-based and gender-transformative approaches can reduce inequalities, and called for a rapid increase in funding, commitment and action in this area to reach the people most in need of assistance.

The event served as a reminder that 62% of new HIV cases in 2019 were diagnosed among key populations still criminalized in many countries, and among their sexual partners, that AIDS still is one of the leading causes of death among adolescent girls and young women in sub-Saharan Africa due to gender inequality and discriminatory gender norms,  and six out of seven new HIV infections among adolescents (ages 15-19) in the same region are among girls.

The event also gave hope that action and changes are possible. During the event, the Governments of Angola, Costa Rica and the Gambia announced that they are joining the Global Partnership to Action to End All Forms of HIV-related Stigma and Discrimination.

At the event, Winnie Byanima, Executive Director of UNAIDS, called on the international community to come together in support of the ambitious new goals and commitments outlined in the Global AIDS Strategy 2021–2026. She highlighted the importance of the strategy, as it for the first time set specific targets to reduce social drivers of inequality, giving them the same priority and commitment as biomedical interventions.

“Failure to make any progress on all social factors will undermine targets for prevention, testing, treatment and virus suppression, leading to an additional 1.7 million AIDS-related deaths and 2.5 million new HIV infections between 2021 and 2030 years. Therefore, we cannot afford to fail,” she said. New goals mean new tools and guidelines are needed, and Ms. Byanyima has launched a new series of human rights newsletters to support the actions of all stakeholders to remove human rights barriers such as criminal law, stigma and discrimination.