The Chief Justice of the Republic of Sierra Leone, His Lordship Justice Desmond Babatunde Edwards has today disclosed that HIV prevalence is highest among sex workers in the country accounting for 11.8%.
He was delivering his Keynote address as the Guest of Honour in commemoration of World Aids Day on the theme: “Equalize: Achieving Equality to End AIDS.”
Referencing the Integrated Bio-Behavioural Surveillance report released by the National AIDS Secretariat in 2021, Chief Justice Edwards revealed that HIV’s prevalence among Transgender is 4.2%, people who use drugs is 4.2%, men who have sex with men (3.4%) and people in Correctional Facilities (3.2%).
According to the Chief Justice, “we must take action to protect the rights and dignity of all Sierra Leoneans infected or affected by HIV and AIDS. We must work together to address all structural, legal, and systemic barriers that drive inequalities and fuel HIV infections. We must commit ourselves to end all forms of HIV related stigma and discrimination to enable the country End AIDS as public health threat by 2030 as envisaged in the sustainable development goal.”
He said in an assertive manner that, “the time to act is now.”
Read the full speech here:
STATEMENT BY HIS LORDSHIP JUSTICE BABATUNDE EDWARDS, THE CHIEF JUSTICE OF SIERRA LEONE AT THE 2022 WORLD AIDS DAY CELEBRATION AT MILTON MARGAI TECHNICAL UNIVERSITY – GODERICH CAMPUS – THURSDAY, 1ST DECEMBER 2022
Madam Chairperson, Simitie Lavally, Commissioner, Human Rights Commission; Minister of Health & Sanitation, Minister of Youth Affairs, UN Resident Co-ordinator, UN Resident Representative, Representative of the US Ambassador, WHO Representative, World Food Programme Representative, Country Director – UN AIDS, Director-General National Aids Secretariat, other members of the High Table, Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen and youths, it is indeed a great pleasure to be here today to join you in commemorating the 2022 World AIDS Day campaign. I am especially delighted about the theme for the celebration “Equalize: Achieving Equality to End AIDS”, which draws attention to need for us to provide equal access to HIV prevention and treatment services for all people in Sierra Leone and beyond in an environment free of stigma and discrimination. I will like to express appreciation to the National AIDS Secretariat and the Ministry of Health and Sanitation for the continuous leadership in controlling the AIDS pandemic in Sierra Leone.
Forty years ago, the world was greeted with this Deadly disease called AIDS. The practical effect was like a death sentence with the victim sanctioned to go through what remains of his/her life with NO life-saving medications available. It was a state of hopelessness. But today, thanks to improved innovations and technological advancement, HIV medications are now cheap, effective, and readily available to all who need it. People living with HIV now have the opportunity to live their normal lives and fulfil their full potentials. There is however a big problem as stigma and discrimination continue to reverse progress made by Sierra Leone in particular to achieve epidemic control.
Our ability to ‘end AIDS’ in a generation would only be possible if we ensure that the majority of people living with HIV know their status, are on treatment and are virally suppressed thereby reducing new infections. This is possible. This will largely depend on our success at reducing the stigma, discrimination and other human rights violations faced by key and vulnerable populations mostly at risk of HIV infection. People living with HIV, persons with disability and other key populations continue to face discrimination at the workplace, face negative attitudes from health workers and are often denied health services because of their status. HIV positive students are maltreated and bullied in schools and as such are afraid to take their medication in school. People living with HIV and key population are under constant threat of rejection by families and ejection from their homes. All these must stop if we must reduce new infections. Gender inequalities and harmful cultural practices have limited the rights of women, young people, people living with HIV and key population groups to own property and access to economic opportunities remain a major driver of HIV in the country. The increasing number of sexual and gender-based violence and paedophilia continue to put many of our young girls and boys at risk of getting HIV.
It is therefore not surprising that HIV prevalence is significantly higher in these key and vulnerable population groups than the general population group. As highlighted by other speakers, although HIV prevalence among the general adult population remains low at 1.7%, prevalence among women is twice (2.2%) as high compared to the rate among men (1.1%) and even thrice as high for women and girls aged 15 to 24 years. The integrated Bio-behavioural surveillance conducted by the National AIDS Secretariat last year indicates that HIV prevalence is highest among sex workers (11.8%), transgender (4.2%), people who use drugs (4.2%), men who have sex with men (3.4%) and people in correctional facilities (3.2%). Yet uptake of HIV prevention and testing services remains low among these population groups due to high rate of stigma, discrimination, and arbitrary arrest that they face, which pushes them underground and contribute to the spread of HIV in the general populations.
Let me use this opportunity to remind all of us that Section 15 of the1991 Constitution states that “Every person in Sierra Leone is entitled to the fundamental human rights and freedoms of the individual, and has the right, whatever his race, tribe, place of origin, political opinion, colour, creed or sex, but subject to respect for the rights and freedoms of others and for the public interest”. These rights are:
- Right to life, liberty, security of person, the enjoyment of property, and the protection of law;
- Right to freedom of conscience, of expression and of assembly and association;
- Right to respect for private and family life, and
- Right to protection from deprivation of property without compensation;
Because these rights exist and are enshrined in the 1991 Constitution as entrenched provisions, we must come together and put all efforts to end inequalities that are doing well to suppress the eradication of AIDS.
Similarly, the National AIDS Commission Act, No. 11 of 2011 guarantees the rights of all people in Sierra Leone to HIV prevention and treatment services and protections for people living with or affected by HIV. Their rights to voluntary HIV testing, confidentiality and privacy, and protections from all forms of discrimination at school, home, the workplace and community at large. It is therefore unacceptable and breach of the law if the rights of those infected or affected populations are not respected. The Judiciary of Sierra Leone, which I head is ready to help them and the country at large. I will strongly encourage all those who feel that their rights have been violated to seek legal or civil remedies from the courts. We are there to help them and Helping Them We Will.
To end AIDS as a public health threat we need to work together to end all forms of inequalities. The new Global AIDS Strategy calls for renewed global efforts to end inequalities in order to end AIDS. The 2011 Global Commission on HIV and the Law provides some guidance on what countries need to do to ensure an effective, sustainable response to HIV that is consistent with human rights obligations. The Commission made the following recommendations as actions for or by governments, civil society and international bodies to accelerate HIV and human rights. Thus, countries are urged to:
- Outlaw all forms of discrimination and violence directed against those who are vulnerable to or living with HIV or are perceived to be HIV positive. Ensure that existing human rights commitments and constitutional guarantees are enforced;
- Repeal punitive laws and enact laws that facilitate and enable effective responses to HIV prevention and care and treatment services for all who need them;
- Work with the guardians of customary and religious law so as to promote traditions and religious practice that promote rights and acceptance of diversity and that protect privacy;
- Decriminalise private and consensual adult sexual behaviours, including same-sex sexual acts and voluntary sex work;
- Prosecute the perpetrators of sexual violence, including marital rape and rape related to conflict, whether perpetrated against females, males, or transgender people;
- Abolish all mandatory HIV-related registration, testing, and forced treatment regimens. Facilitate access to sexual and reproductive health services and stop forced abortion and coerced sterilisation of HIV-positive women and girls;
- Reform approaches towards drug use. Rather than punishing people who use drugs but do no harm to others, governments must offer them access to effective HIV and health services, including harm reduction programmes and voluntary, evidence-based treatment for drug dependence;
- Enforce laws against all forms of child sexual abuse and sexual exploitation, clearly differentiating such crimes from consensual adult sex work;
- Ensure that the enforcement of laws against human trafficking is carefully targeted to punish those who use force, dishonesty or coercion to procure people into commercial sex, or who abuse migrant sex workers.
While I note that we have made some efforts in all these Recommendations, there is still much more to be done.
Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen:
We can and should make all efforts to achieve these recommendations fully to accelerate Sierra Leone’s progress towards ending AIDS as a Public Health Threat by 2030. In this regard, there is a need for us to work together to build the capacity of Judges, Magistrates, Police and Law Enforcement Agencies; build the capacity of Human Right Defenders so as to promote and protect the rights of people living with or affected by HIV and HIV affected households. The Human Rights Commission as an institution should aggressively monitor, track and report all HIV related human right violation and provide redress to the affected persons.
The setting up of Special Courts to specifically address Human Rights violations in this regard, is something the Judiciary can do.
Let me seize this opportunity to call on all stakeholders to collaborate and support the Judiciary to set up Special Courts that will be dedicated to addressing HIV related human right violations just as Kenya has done. Our experience with the Model Courts for Sexual & Gender Bases Violence (SGBV) cases has proved that these special courts serve as a good vehicle for timely adjudication of cases. It is imperative that we scale-up these courts to all five regions in Sierra Leone which in itself will be positive action.
We must take action to protect the rights and dignity of all Sierra Leoneans infected or affected by HIV and AIDS. We must work together to address all structural, legal and systemic barriers that drive inequalities and fuel HIV infections. We must commit ourselves to end all forms of HIV related stigma and discrimination to enable the country End AIDS as public health threat by 2030 as envisaged in the sustainable development goal. The time to act is now.
On this note I wish you all a very successful WORLD AIDS DAY celebration.