This year AIDS Action Europe Member and Partner meeting took place on November 19th. As part of the Meeting, AAE conducted a webinar on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), focusing on recent developments and backlashes in SRHR in Europe and Central Asia, and their impact on HIV-, and STI-testing, prevention, and linkage to care and treatment.
The idea of the topic of our webinar came from growing concerns about sexual and reproductive freedoms in Europe and Central Asia.
For example, in 2019 some of the cities in Poland declared themselves as LGBT-free zones in order to ban Prides and other LGBTIQ events on their territory. And in 2021 the ruling of the Constitutional Tribunal of Poland further limited the access to abortion, making it almost impossible to access these services. This led to the tragic death of a woman, whose pregnancy could not be terminated under the new rules and regulations, despite posing a lethal risk for the woman.
In summer 2021 in Hungary, a discriminatory law was adopted that forbids dissemination of information about homosexuality and gender recognition in media and other publications, and in schools for youth under 18. This legislation was preceded by the adopted definitions in the Fundamental Law of Hungary, namely that marriage is a union between one man and one women, and that the father is a man and the mother is a woman, and the retroactive stop on gender recognition. The support of the law by the Polish Minister of Education and his statement that a similar law should be adopted in Poland serve as a further cause of alarm over the deteriorating state of, and severe violations of human rights inside of the EU’s borders.
The Hungarian legislation, disguised as a law to protect children from sexual abuse, not only blurs sexual orientation and gender identity with paedophilia, it is also very unclearly drafted, pushing many, including school teachers and other care takers of children into uncertainty and consequent silence, and gives floor to increased reporting and denouncing of LGBTI-related content and context.
COVID measures reduced access to SRH services even more, including access to HIV and STI testing, treatment, and preventive counseling services, especially for those most vulnerable. We already wrote on our concerns on how some of the public health measures introduced in times of pandemics lack all the principles of human rights-based public health approaches, and in certain cases are not even connected to the prevention and the control of the pandemic.
Many countries used the pandemic to further introduce legislation that would attack certain populations, like women, LGBTIQ people, limiting their rights and access to health, including sexual and reproductive health and rights.
Scapegoating an already marginalised group within society is nothing new, we see the same practice year after year, mostly before general election, as part of the campaign of populist, illiberal leaders, not even considering the grave impact these hateful campaigns have on societies at large.
During the webinar, we also learned about other examples from Europe that provide ground for further concerns. In Latvia a law seeking to redefine family “as a union only between a man and a woman” was passed and sent to the Commission for review. In Romania two bills were introduced about gender identity in educational space and sex education in relation to children´s rights.
These actions have already been condemned by many EU Member States and leaders of the European Commission, however, in these times when human rights are under strong attacks both in Europe and worldwide, where sexual health and rights are more and more pushed aside, we need a stronger leadership of the European Commission and EU Member State to play a key role in protecting and promoting the fundamental human rights of all, especially those most vulnerable and have been facing inequalities, including inequalities in health.
Finnish member of European Parliament Alviina Alametsä opened our webinar dedicated to Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights, sharing her stance on the state of the issue and the developments that have happened recently. While discussing the topic of SRHR in Europe, she touched upon Poland and Hungary, where recently SRHR came under big attack.
IPPFEN representative gave an overview of sexual and reproductive rights current situation in Europe, and mentioned that anti-choice movements intensified in the region, especially In Bulgaria, Croatia, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Spain. Those movements changed their strategy to gain respectability, hiding behind neutral names and websites, putting forward biased legal and scientific expertise, reclaiming progressive notions such as gender or feminism to change their meaning. In addition, Covid measures have further restricted access to SRHR, including HIV counselling and testing.
Some examples of positive signs on access to SRHR have been presented, including the rejection of the restrictive abortion care bill in Slovakia, and revoking by some Polish regions their anti-LGBT status.
Our member organization Foundation for Social Education presented the wide scope of SRHR services they have been providing in Poland, including testing and care in the field of infectious diseases (in particular HIV and HCV), health education and health promotion. The presentation has also touched upon the topic of limitations on abortion, introduced in Poland in 2020. The presentation informed that unfortunately, even before 2020 the access to abortion was limited by the Family Planning Act. The Family Planning Act of 1993, limited access to abortion only to the grounds of severe and irreversible fetal defect or incurable illness of the fetus, rape, incest, and danger to mother’s health. Often, even under these grounds, access to abortion care was hardly available.
The presentation "Access to Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights Services for Women Living with HIV in Tajikistan" discussed SRHR of women in Tajikistan from a legal perspective as well as actual challenges faced by women in exercising their sexual and reproductive rights. The presentation also included the opinions of women living with HIV in Tajikistan, and the following are some of the solutions voiced by them:
- Abolish laws that criminalize HIV transmission
- Increase social protection for women and children
- Expand access to harm reduction programs for women who use drugs and sex workers through provision of women-oriented services:
- Rapid testing for HIV, TB, hepatitis, STIs;
- provision of clean needles and syringes, condoms, informational materials;
- counseling on SRHR, accompaniment to HIV, TB, hepatitis C, STI, STD treatment programs
The presentation on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights in Hungary by Hatter Society gave an overview of backlashes on SRHR and LGBTQI+ rights by the Hungarian government. In addition to the attacks to the sexual orientation and gender identity freedoms, HIV and AIDS services have also suffered significant decline. In comparison with late 80s, many HIV and AIDS public services and strategies have been shut down.
Despite all the challenges Hatter Society is continuing to provide to the community such services as legal aid, counselling, advocacy, HIV and AIDS prevention and support etc.