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Governments should include refugees in national HIV/AIDS treatment programmes – UN

Governments should include refugees in national HIV/AIDS treatment programmes – UN

HIV-positive woman holds out a variety of medicine
United Nations agencies are calling on governments everywhere to include refugees in their national HIV/AIDS policies and programmes and give them the same access to treatment as their own citizens.

In a newly released four-page policy brief focusing specifically on actions needed to address the spread and effect of HIV on refugees and their host communities, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) also urged civil society to tackle popular misconceptions about refugees and the spread of the disease.

“Far too often refugees face an untenable situation: they are no longer guaranteed the protection of their country of origin and do not receive assistance from host countries,” the brief says, noting that they often face the stigma of both their status as refugees and the common misconception that HIV prevalence is higher among them than in host communities.

“Stigma and discrimination need to be tackled as an integral part of responding effectively to HIV among refugees and host communities,” it adds.

“We advocate for refugees to access HIV services in the same manner as that of the local population,” UNHCR HIV/AIDS unit head Paul Spiegel said, noting that that some southern African countries already provide both refugees and the host population free antiretroviral drugs using government services.

The brief also called on governments to ensure the protection of women and children from sexual or physical violence and exploitation. “Women and girls are often disproportionately affected by displacement. They need special attention in terms of HIV,” Purnima Mane, director of policy, evidence and partnerships at UNAIDS, said.

The two UN partners also urged civil society to challenge stigmatization and discrimination against refugees, increase communication and cooperation between refugees and host societies, and strengthen the capacity of refugee community leaders and groups, including those of people living with HIV, for their rights.

“The realization of human rights is central to reducing vulnerability to HIV infection and addressing the effects of HIV,” the policy paper notes, adding that international partners should lobby governments to meet their legal obligations towards refugees and implement strategies that reflect best practices in responding to HIV-related needs.

In a related development, UNAIDS, the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) and the pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson have announced grants to organizations in five countries to address links between gender-based violence and the spread of HIV/AIDS.

“Violence against women and HIV are pandemics that deny women’s human rights and devastate individual lives and societies,” UNIFEM Executive Director Noeleen Heyzer said. “We welcome the opportunity to work through public-private partnerships to invest in innovative strategies. Scaled up, they can become part of national development strategies to achieve lasting change.”

The grants to organizations in Botswana, the Dominican Republic, India, Nigeria and Vietnam will foster innovative strategies to raise awareness, uphold laws, provide medical assistance, train service providers and reduce stigma and discrimination to empower women.

“Violence makes women more susceptible to HIV infection and the fear of violent male reactions, physical and psychological, prevents many women from trying to find out more about HIV, discourages them from getting tested and stops them from getting treatment,” UNAIDS Executive Director Peter Piot said.

The grants will be provided by Johnson & Johnson through the UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women, a multilateral funding mechanism administered by UNIFEM that became operational 10 years ago and has so far awarded some $13 million to 226 initiatives in more than 100 countries.