Durban - The war on HIV and Aids could be stymied by the unequal application of criminal laws.

This was the consensus of a group of researchers at a session at the International Aids Conference titled “Beyond blame: A feminist dialogue on criminalisation of HIV transmission, exposure and non-disclosure”, which looked at misapplication of the laws of certain countries and their impact on the epidemic.

“The law is a critical tool for creating an enabling environment for effective responses to HIV and to provide access to justice for those affected by HIV. While some have argued in favour of laws criminalising HIV exposure, transmission or non-disclosure as protective of women, they in fact leave them more vulnerable to persecution and increased violence,” said organisers in their introduction.

Marama Pala, a New Zealand activist who was infected 24 years ago, said when the trial against the man who had infected her began, she was painted as the victim. And because she was seen as “criminalising” the spread of HIV, she was ostracised by those living with the virus.

“I was only 22. I didn’t have an education. People would look at me and say: ‘Poor girl’. Everyone called me a victim. But I’m not.”

She said that experience, and many more, had convinced her that this approach did not work and instead became another way to abuse human rights.

“As an indigenous woman (she is Maori) I know how people of colour are always the ones to be disproportionately affected by laws like this one.”

Members of the LGBTI community and prostitutes were also targeted. This point was raised by Jules Kim, a prostitute at Scarlet Alliance, an Australian association, who said that a trans-woman prostitute was now facing charges and was being held in a men’s maximum security prison.

“No white men have been arrested under these laws, unless they are sex workers. Even if a person has been on ARVs for years (meaning that their viral load has been suppressed and they cannot pass on the virus), they are still arrested and face criminal charges.”

She said everyone had a responsibility to protect their sexual health.

Ruth Morgan Thomas, global co-ordinator of the Global Network of Sex Work Projects, said these laws were based on “family values”.

“The custodians of the law – the police – are the ones who are sometimes perpetrators of the violence. If you report a rape, they tell you that that can’t be possible, because you’re a whore.”

Men who had sex with men also bore the brunt of those laws.