NGO Delegate for Asia and the Pacific, Jane Bruning, shares her country’s and her personal experiences with HIV.
I would like to share with you some examples from New Zealand where the removal of punitive laws has played a significant role in the reduction of HIV transmission.
New Zealand meets the UNAIDS/WHO criteria for a “low-level” HIV and AIDS epidemic because HIV prevalence has not consistently exceeded five percent in any defined sub-population. Since recording of HIV and AIDS began in 1985 there have been a total of 3475 cases.
The Homosexual Law Reform Act 1986
AIDS first emerged in New Zealand in the mid 1980’s amongst the MSM community at a time when homosexuality was still illegal. The movement for homosexual reform had started sometime before the onset of AIDS, but it is undeniable the AIDS epidemic spurred action in this area. In 1986 the movement was successful in lobbying for the The Homosexual Law Reform Act 1986, which was an amendment to the Crimes Act 1961. The Homosexual Law Reform Act, removed criminal sanctions against consensual homosexual conduct between males, and as a consequence amended the law relating to consensual anal intercourse (Homosexual Law Reform Act 1986).
The passing of this law enabled the establishment of the New Zealand AIDS Foundation who’s main focus has been on HIV awareness and prevention for men who have sex with men.
Health (Needles and Syringes) Regulations 1987
New Zealand was one of the first countries in the world to implement a national NEP. The implementation of the Needle Exchange Programme (NEP) under the Health (Needles and Syringes) Regulations 1987. meant the sale of needles and syringes for intravenous drug use was decriminalised as long as their sale was part of the Needle Exchange Programme (NEP)
This did not legalise drug use but recognised intravenous drug use was a significant factor in the transmission of both HIV and Hepatitis and the NEP.
A review conducted in 2001 by the Centre of Harm Reduction in Australia, concluded that New Zealand’s NEP had been effective in preventing HIV and Hepatitis C infections among injecting drug users. It found there had been a gradual decline in needle sharing since the late 1980’s and believed this was as a result of the NEP (Campbell, 2003; Henderson, 2009).
Prostitution Reform Act was implemented in 2005
While sex work itself was not illegal in the 1980’s, soliciting for clients was. This loop whole however enabled the legitimate establishment of the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective.
A significant factor for the establishment of the NZPC was the threat of the HIV and AIDS epidemic and the need for health authorities to work together with the sex worker industry around HIV awareness and prevention programmes with a focus on promoting condom use. Alongside this, was an increasing realisation that it was important to acknowledge the rights and needs of sex workers and the sex worker industry.
The NZPC has over the years been credited for the very low HIV infection rate among sex-industry workers in New Zealand through their successful health promotion efforts and also their influence at policy level. It has been invited to join all major advisory groups and has played an active role in the development of the HIV and AIDS strategies and prevention policies at a national level.
As a result of several years of advocating sex work as a legitimate service occupation and that sex workers should be entitled to the same occupational, health and safety rights as other workers the Prostitution Reform Act was implemented in 2005.
The recognition by the NZ govt so early on in the AIDS epidemic as to the significance of reducing punitive laws as a public health strategy has been instrumental.
It is evident from these examples that the decriminalisation and regulation of punitive laws DOES work in the response to HIV and AIDS. The fewer barriers there are to people coming forward for testing and accessing medications the faster we will get to reaching our goals of getting to ZERO…this is no longer an unachievable goal.
I would like to finish on a personal note. As a woman who has been living with HIV for 24 years I have seen the role denial has played in the AIDS epidemic. Suspecting I might have HIV after the death of an ex partner in 1990, I was not even able to access an HIV test in a public hospital as the country I was living in at the time was in denial that AIDS existed in their country. Many people died and many 100.s of thousand more contracted HIV as a consequence of this type of denial…please do not let denial of behaviours judged from a moral perspective impede us as we go forward.