How are HIV, gender, immigration and criminalization connected? How do HIV, silence and stigma affect people living in and migrating from Mexico? Speakers explored these connections and efforts to overcome the silence and stigma in "HIV Is Not a Crime: Immigration and HIV Decriminalization," a webinar sponsored by the SERO Project and the HIV Prevention Justice Alliance (HIV PJA).
According to the speakers, in 2015, 5,722 new cases of HIV were identified in Mexico. Of these new cases, 4,977 had already developed into AIDS by the time they were detected. Furthermore, one of every four people with HIV in Mexico is a woman. Eighty-six percent of women living with HIV are between 15 and 49 years old and 93 percent contracted HIV from their partners. (Ninety-five percent of HIV transmission comes through unprotected sex.)
Frighteningly, the mortality rate for women living with HIV in Mexico is 10.2 for every 100 people, which is double the country's rate.
On the other hand, not much is known about trans people with HIV in Mexico. Alexandra Rodriguez de Ruiz works with the International Reference Group on Trans* and Gender Variant and HIV/AIDS Issues and El/La Para Translatinas, which provides resources for trans Latinas living in California's Bay Area. In the webinar, she explained that data on trans women are not separated from data collected on gay people and men who have sex with men. "It is imperative for this data to be separated so we can know the impact [of HIV] on trans women," she said.
The intersections of migration and HIV are not limited to the United States. Rodriguez noted that, similar to the U.S., trans migrants arriving in Mexico from Central and South America are unable to access medical services and housing. "They have no rights whatsoever as undocumented migrants," she stated. For people living with HIV, though the lack of services can carry huge public and personal health consequences, the Mexican government stipulates that they must first apply for refugee status before being provided medical care and other services.
Marco Castro-Bojorquez is on the steering committee of the People Living With HIV Caucus. He is also the founder of Venas Abiertas (Open Veins), a network of Latinx immigrants living with HIV/AIDS. He points to the case of Veracruz, a Mexican state located on the eastern shore. Veracruz, he says, lacks comprehensive, scientific and secular sex education as well as a comprehensive policy to promote sexual and reproductive health or a public policy campaign that incorporates preventative and educational components. Veracruz has the country's third highest HIV rate and is one of two Mexican states that have criminalized HIV, providing a punishment of six months to five years in prison. In 2015, this was codified into law as Article 158 of the Penal Code of the Free and Independent State of Veracruz.
This criminalization, Castro-Bojorquez says, disproportionately hits the state's most vulnerable: the poor, the illiterate and those from rural and indigenous areas. In other words, those who already suffer from a lack of services, education and employment are the hardest hit.
"Sometimes people have to walk 18 hours to get medical care," he noted. Having to travel long distances frequently results in a late diagnosis. Those living with HIV bear a triple stigma of being poor, indigenous and HIV-positive. Once they are diagnosed, they then have to go through a lengthy bureaucratic process to obtain medical insurance to pay for health care. "This bureaucratic process puts them away from an effective linkage to care and access to treatment and near[er] to death," he stated. There are even more barriers for people who are trans, indigenous or undocumented Central American migrants, who also have to overcome language barriers, lack of documentation and additional stigma.
Grupo Multi de VIH (or the Multisectoral Group on HIV/AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Infections) is pushing the National Human Rights Commission to challenge Article 158 in Mexico's Supreme Court of Justice, which, like the U.S. Supreme Court, can strike down unconstitutional laws. Its challenge is supported by HIV justice groups worldwide, including the AIDS and Rights Alliance for Southern Africa, the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, the Global Network of People Living With HIV, the HIV Justice Network, the International Community of Women Living With HIV, Positive Women's Network-USA, and the Sero Project.