Is the Commonweath ready for an Aids-free generation?

Last week the European Parliament agreed on a new law to provide specific assistance and protection to people who suffer crime because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or, in a first for EU law, gender expression.

Can we expect the Commonwealth to adopt such a progressive approach on HIV and human rights issues? The annual meeting of the Commonwealth Foreign Ministers, coming up soon in New York, normally attracts attention for its economic and political agenda. But among the HIV/Aids community, populations vulnerable to the infection and human rights activists, concern is centered on the fate of certain recommendations relating to the Commonwealth’s legal reform process.

According to the International HIV/Aids Alliance, for whom I act as a Trustee, the 54 Commonwealth countries account for 30 per cent of the world’s population and for 60 per cent of global HIV prevalence which shows the disproportionate nature of risk factors present in these societies. Evidence has proved that much of the HIV-related transmission occurs among sex workers and their clients, men who have sex with men (MSM), the transgender community and people who inject drugs.

Evidence has also shown that without engaging with these populations with prevention and treatment services, new HIV infections will not be brought down. This is true too of hyper epidemic countries in Africa as a substantial share of new infections occurs among these vulnerable groups. Vulnerable populations do not exist in isolation but are intrinsically linked socially and sexually with the general population creating an epidemiological link between different sections of society.

While some Commonwealth countries have seen a steady decline in new infections in the past few years, it is not fast enough to turn the Aids epidemic around and stop its spread. Many will fail to achieve the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) six of halting and reversing the epidemic by 2015.

A serious obstacle for reducing infection rates among vulnerable communities is the adverse legal environment they face which criminalises their behaviour and makes them a target for harassment and violence at the hands of law enforcers in most Commonwealth countries. All but six of these countries still classify same sex conduct as illegal. Since the first UN General Assembly Special Session on Aids the international community and UN member states have repeatedly called for amendment of laws that criminalise the behaviour of vulnerable populations to protect their human rights and fundamental freedoms, in particular access to health care and legal protection. But very little progress on reform has been reported from many Commonwealth countries in the last decade.

The Global Commission on HIV and the Law recently presented incontrovertible evidence that criminalization enhances HIV-related risks among men who have sex with men and transgender populations in Commonwealth countries. In Commonwealth countries in the Caribbean, one in four MSM are infected with HIV while in non-Commonwealth countries the ratio is one to fifteen.

Section 377 stands for criminalization of same sex relations in most of the penal laws of Commonwealth countries of Asia. Transgender people are denied acknowledgement as legal persons and their gender is unrecognized. Acts of sexist violence are committed against them while police stand by. Sex work is criminalized in most of the Commonwealth countries despite compelling evidence that sex workers are 14 times more vulnerable to HIV than other women.  When it comes to drug policy, laws do not differentiate between a drug user and drug trafficker and the war on drug campaigns too often end up as a war on drug users.

The Commission has called upon governments to take immediate action to repeal or amend outdated legislations criminalizing HIV transmission and the behaviours of vulnerable populations. Police and law enforcement machinery must be reined in and asked to protect human rights and guarantee access to HIV-related prevention, treatment and care

The report received strong endorsement from the UN Secretary-General, the heads of UNDP and UNAIDS and many civil society organisations around the world who called for a time bound implementation of the Commission recommendations.

In this context, the upcoming meeting of the Commonwealth Foreign Ministers assumes great significance. Following the Perth meeting of the Heads of Governments of Commonwealth (CHOGM) countries last year, a Ministerial Task Force was asked to develop 44 recommendations and present them for approval. Some have great social relevance like the repeal of discriminatory laws that impede an effective response to the HIV epidemic and the establishment of a Commonwealth Commissioner for Democracy, the Rule of Law and Human Rights.

Whether these recommendations actually make their way into the discussions is another matter.  Civil society organisations and vulnerable communities within the Commonwealth are concerned that the Aids agenda risks being put on the back burner at a time when determined action by these countries could lead us towards an Aids-free generation.

There is still time for the Commonwealth to lead by example and take decisive action to address the legal and structural barriers currently impeding the global HIV response, thereby changing the course of the epidemic once and for all.

Prasada Rao is the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy on Aids in the Asia Pacific region. He is former Permanent Secretary for Health and Family Welfare in Government of India and former Regional Director of UNAIDS in Asia and the Pacific. He is also a Trustee of the International HIV/Aids Alliance which works to support community action on HIV and AIDS in developing countries.

Sex workers chat to outreach workers at an outdoor café during a street shift in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Photograph: International HIV/AIDS Alliance
Hamzah al Zobi
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Meet the Syrians using education to escape the refugee camps

On the bus to university with Syrian refugees in Jordan. 

The bus to Zarqa University leaves Jordan’s largest refugee camp at 7am sharp. The journey is one of the day’s highlights for the Syrian students who ride this route - a chance to plan weekend get-togethers, bemoan heavy course loads and even enjoy the occasional school-bus style sing-along. It’s also their daily ticket out of Za’atari camp and a means of escaping the dreary realities of refugee life.

“We are the lucky ones. Most had to give up their dreams of higher education” says 19-year-old Reema Nasser Al Hamad, whose family fled to Jordan five years ago when bombs destroyed her home in Dara’a, Syria. She shudders to think of the alternatives: aimless days spent sitting in a crowded caravan, or early marriage. “After the war, students in Syria lost their cities, their opportunities and their futures, so many of the girls just married when they got here. There’s a huge difference between the lives of those who study and those who don’t.”

Despite missing two years of school, Reema (pictured below) was able to pass her exams before securing a Saudi-funded scholarship to study Pharmacy at Zaraq’ University. “In Syria, I’d planned to do medicine and be a doctor because I always had high grades. There are fewer choices for us here but I’m happy to be studying at all,” she says. Hamza al Zobi, who’s studying Pharmacy on an the EU-funded EDU-Syria programnme, says young Syrians are hungry to learn. “We all have friends and relatives who didn’t get this chance and we feel so upset for them. If they’re not well educated, how can they go back and do the right thing for our country?”

More than a quarter of 18-24 year olds in Syria were enrolled in higher education when the war broke out. “Based on data provided by UNHCR we assess that around 20,000 young Syrians in Jordan would qualify for vocational education and higher education,” says Job Arts, Programme Manager Education and Youth, EU Delegation to Jordan, which is supporting some 1800 Syrians and disadvantaged Jordanians on degree courses in Jordan.

“While the number of places for Syrian students to pursue their education has increased dramatically over the past few years, there are still many more interested students than spaces available for study,” says Sarah Dryden-Peterson, non-resident Fellow at the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution. “Without these possibilities, young Syrians will lose the kind of hope that is essential to productive futures.”

According to the Jordan Response Platform for the Syria Crisis, 1,250 Syrian youth were in higher education in Jordan in 2016. Building on commitments made by the international community at the London Conference on Syria last year, the Jordanian government hopes to secure funding to increase access to tertiary education and vocational training at the upcoming conference in Brussels this April.

“Jordan views higher education from a strategic point of view, specifically in terms of providing the Syrian youth with the education, skill and knowledge that will allow the opportunity to be part of rebuilding their country once the current situation comes to an end,” says Feda Gharaibeh, Director, Humanitarian Relief Coordination Unit at the Jordanian Ministry of Planning & International Cooperation.

Reema plans to return to Syria when the war is over. “After graduation a lot of students want to go to Europe. That would be fine for me too if it’s just to do a masters or doctorate, but then I want to go back to Syria and use what I’ve learnt to help my people.” Now four semesters into her course, she is making good progress but says adapting to the Jordanian education system was a challenge. “It’s really difficult for us. Classes are taught in English and the teaching style is different. They also have a lot more exams here.”

Only the brightest stand a chance of securing a scholarship but many young Syrians have seen their grades plummet after missing years of schooling. For, some, it’s too late to catch up. Accountancy student Ibrahim Mohammed, 23, came to Jordan in 2013 with his younger brother Khalil, now 19, who works in a print shop. “He stopped studying when he was 14. He didn’t even have a chance to get his high school certificate,” says Ibrahim.

Attempts to bridge the gap through open and distance learning programmes aren’t always effective. “It’s not a tool that is frequently used in the education environment in the Middle East,” explains Arts. Refugee students' access to electricity, internet connections, computers and space to study can be in short supply. Moreover, many students seek the escapism that a university education offers. “In our dialogue with parents and students, we often hear the phrase ‘being normal again’,” Arts adds.

Hamzah tries to help fellow students achieve this in his role as representative for the Syrian community at Zarqa University. He and Reema are part of a team that offers advice to new students and support for those from poorer families living in the camps. “There are 900 Syrian students here and each one has a different story of suffering,” says Hamzah, who organises group trips to restaurants and fairgrounds, helping to create a sense of regular student life. “It makes us forget what we are,” explains Reema.

During term time, she prefers to stay with her uncle in Mafraq, a city nearby. It’s hard to study in Za’atari. As soon as the power comes on at 5pm, her brothers switch on the TV, making it difficult to concentrate in the cramped caravan they share. There’s nowhere else to go; the camp is dangerous at night, particularly for young women. It’s even more crowded since the arrival of her baby sister. Reema remembers how her mother sobbed when she learned of the pregnancy, worried about bringing another child into the makeshift world of the camp.

But in five years a lot has changed. “In Syria, I had never left my village; now I feel there is another world to know,” says Reema. Like many Syrian students, she worries about life after university, particularly if they stay in Jordan where employment opportunities remain restricted for Syrian refugees. “It seems like work is forbidden to us Syrians and without a job we can’t take control of our lives. We’re studying hard but with no prospects,” says Hamzah. Few can see beyond graduation. “The future is opaque for us,” he adds, “We’re just living day by day.”

To date, the Jordanian government has issued some 39,000 works permits out of the 200,000 it pledged to make available for Syrians during the London Conference last February. However, with these opportunities built around low-income roles, primarily in the construction, agriculture, and textile manufacture sectors, the way for Syrian university graduates in Jordan still seems barred.

“Jordan is a small country with limited job opportunities,” says Ghaith Rababah Head of Projects & International Cooperation Unit (PICU) at the Ministry of Higher Education & Scientific Research. “Maybe the market will be better able to absorb educated Syrians at a later stage.”

In the meantime, higher education offers young Syrians a semblance of the security and stability their lives otherwise lack, Rababah continues. Given the opportunity to “use their talents for something good”, he adds, young people placed in difficult situations are less likely to fall prey to extremist ideologies and be “tricked into committing terrorist acts".