David Patterson has come a long way since backpacking around the world in search of a cause. He traces his interest in HIV and health law back to an episode in his native Australia, when an insurance offer came through his door. The eighties AIDS panic was raging, and the document came with a proviso: homosexuals need not apply. It was this brush with discrimination which fired up the lawyer and social activist in him.
Some 25 years later, the man who runs IDLO’s Social Development Unit is convinced his job is the best in the organization — if also the most affecting. “When it comes to working on HIV,” he says, “staff put more of themselves into it than in any other area of law. It’s very emotive. You’re dealing with extreme vulnerabilities.”
Legal officer Namizata Meite, whose brief is HIV in Francophone Africa, confirms the experience is often one of personal intensity. She tells of watching Hortense, a Beninoise women’s activist living with HIV, conduct an IDLO-sponsored awareness session in Cotonou. “Seeing this passionate woman jolt her peers out of their despondency was electrifying,” Ms Meite recalls. “The women were spellbound, and so was I. Day and night, whatever the time, Hortense will answer calls from women looking for legal redress, or just for someone to pour their hearts out to.”
IDLO’s emphasis on women living with HIV reflects their much tougher lot: in Benin as elsewhere in Africa, women are the first to be diagnosed as they undergo pregnancy-related tests. They are also the first to be abandoned when husbands hear of their status. Popular fear and ignorance push them to the harsh edge of society.
In the last three years, working with its own alumni and women lawyers in Benin, IDLO has helped create HIV-focused legal services where none existed before. Many of the beneficiaries had faced violence and the unlawful disclosure of their medical files. Some had been deprived of their rightful inheritance. Others had lost jobs and livelihoods. All had suffered forms of stigmatization and persecution. In a number of instances, IDLO has helped bring legal action against the alleged culprits. But with many Africans still skeptical of the formal court system, solutions have more often been extra-judicial. Mediators have been trained to apply their dispute-settling skills to situations involving HIV status. Overall, in Benin alone, some 200 cases have been solved. Legal services are now part of the country’s national HIV strategy.
Benin is one of several nations where IDLO has put its legal muscle behind the defense of people living with HIV. Targeted action has gone hand in hand with training, information campaigns, institutional support and technical assistance to governments. At a drug rehabilitation center in the Chinese city of Kunming, a Legal Aid Center now provides individuals with confidential advice. In Indonesia, by contrast, a model was piloted involving community-based legal solutions. In typical IDLO fashion, there is no single, rigid model: projects are nimble, tailored, and locally-rooted.
Underneath them all, however, a broader, near-philosophical endeavor can be glimpsed. It is one which seeks to redefine HIV itself: for IDLO, what was purely a matter of public health must become one of justice. The logic and language of medicine, of HIV as a ‘condition,’ are no longer enough: they must make room for those of the law. “The idea is to say: ‘Hey, these people have rights,’” David Patterson concludes. “And they must be put on the table, and thought through, and properly articulated.’”