On Saturday 3rd of July I was invited to speak at the event Law on Trial at Birkbeck College. My comments followed a lecture by Simon Watney, an hugely inspiring activist and academic, author of the seminal book Policing Desire. I must admit: I was very nervous of speaking among all those high flying academics!
I focused my comments on how HIV, poverty and the current policy context are affecting women living with HIV in the UK.
Around 30.000 women are currently living with HIV in the UK and their numbers have been steadily growing since the beginning of the epidemic. It is concerning how current policy, such as the 10 years old sexual health and HIV strategy, ignores the vulnerability produced by gender inequity and gender violence.
In the UK poverty and immigration policies marginalize women and make them vulnerable to abuse. Many women supported by Positively UK have been in the immigration system for years, living on 30 pounds vouchers a week. Some of those HIV positive women are pushed by their economic circumstances to be in relationships that can support them economically. They would not choose those relationship if they were economically independent. We could call this sex work, even if it doesn’t happen in the streets or in brothels.
When a woman enters such an unequal relationship it becomes very difficult to protect herself. For example negotiating condoms and disclosing her status could provoke rejection or violence. This context is an obstacle to become more open about living with HIV, it promotes stigma, and can make HIVpositive women potentially more vulnerable to be taken to court for HIV exposure and transmission.
I have done out-reach in prison for the past ten years and one of the most worrying trends that I have witnessed is the growing number of immigrant women imprisoned because working with false papers. Those are hard-working women who had never committed a violent crime (or any crime) in their lives. They have broken UK laws not by stealing, but by working. Earning money is a necessity. Their income is mainly needed to support HIVpositive relatives and children back in their countries. Those women are often taken from prison directly to detention centres to be deported to countries where HIV treatment is still not available.
Within this context it is appalling that organizations like Positively UK, which have been very successful in developing the voice, visibility and advocacy skills of women living with HIV, have to struggle to continue their work.