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World AIDS Day: Activists need increased support

World AIDS Day: Human Rights Watch Calls for Increased Support, Protections for Global AIDS Activists

AIDS activists around the world face frequent government repression and abuse and need substantially increased support and protections, said Human Rights Watch on World AIDS Day.

"The few success stories we have in the global fight against AIDS are the result of the heroic efforts of courageous individuals mobilizing impoverished, marginalized, and stigmatized populations to action," said Joe Amon, director of the HIV/AIDS Program at Human Rights Watch. "But AIDS activists and outreach workers are often harassed or even jailed by their governments for simply standing up and speaking out about AIDS, and the international donor community is doing too little to protect them."

Human Rights Watch has documented numerous cases of AIDS activists and non-governmental organizations being harassed, intimidated, or jailed for their work. In China, government officials have jailed activists seeking to expose government complicity in a tainted blood scandal that has infected hundreds of thousands of rural villages with HIV in the country's Henan province. In India and Bangladesh, outreach workers delivering services to sex workers, to men who have sex with men, and to other hidden populations, have faced widespread police harassment and violence.

In Uganda, activists protesting the government's recent turn toward moralistic "abstinence-until-marriage" programs face intimidation from officials and accusations of immorality. In the Philippines, , police routinely arrest women and accuse them of prostitution for simply carrying condoms. In Russia, the parliament is considering legislation that would tighten government control over Russian and foreign non-governmental organizations, threatening vital outreach and education programs for injecting drug users and sex workers.

Activists have encountered government violence for doing nothing but demonstrating peacefully for access to health care. This year in Queenstown, South Africa, police fired rubber bullets and teargas at members of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) who were protesting the slow progress of the government's antiretroviral treatment program. Human Rights Watch has called for a full investigation into this incident.

"Bitter experience has shown that repressing civil society only fuels AIDS epidemics," said Amon. "Where repression rules the day, AIDS wins."

Since 2002, Human Rights Watch has honored six individuals or organizations for their courageous work defending the rights of people living with or affected by AIDS. They are:

Meena Seshu (2002) (2002) is founder and general secretary of SANGRAM, an organization based in Sangli, Maharashtra State, India, that has helped women in prostitution become AIDS educators among themselves and in the wider community.

Dr. Wan Yanhai (2002) is coordinator of the AIZHI (AIDS) Action Project, a nongovernmental organization he founded in 1994 that provides some of the only basic information on HIV/AIDS available to people in China through a widely used web site (www.aizhi.org).

AIDS Law Project (2003) is a pioneering organization that helps combat HIV/AIDS by protecting the rights of the millions affected by the disease in South Africa and that co-founded the Treatment Action Campaign.

The Thai Drug Users' Network (2004) has worked with few resources to help protect the human rights of drug users in Thailand since 2002, even during a brutal anti-drug crackdown that resulted in as many as 3,000 killings.

Humanitarian Action (2005) is a ground-breaking HIV/AIDS organization which has shown that providing outreach and care to Russia's most marginalized populations-such as syringe exchange for drug users, outreach to street-based sex workers, and medical services for street children-is the best way to stem the tide of HIV/AIDS.

Beatrice Were (2005), is one of Uganda's most courageous and compelling AIDS activists. She founded an organization that supports women living with HIV/AIDS and engages in advocacy on behalf of AIDS-affected families and was one of the first Ugandan women to openly declare her HIV status.

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