To Protect Everyone’s Health is to Protect Everyone’s Rights

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Op-Ed by Patricia Ongpin, UNAIDS Country Director for Cambodia, Laos and Malaysia

This year, the world marked the tenth anniversary of Zero Discrimination Day on 1 March. This day reflects on the pivotal role of human rights in ensuring health equity for all. In a landscape fraught with challenges, protecting the rights of every individual becomes not just a moral imperative but a strategic imperative in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

Evidence from the past decades has made it clear: only by protecting everyone’s rights, can we protect everyone’s health.

Over the years, we’ve witnessed notable progress. Globally,  strides have been made in girls’ education, with millions more girls enrolled in school today compared to just a few years ago; 50 million more girls are in school today than in 2015. The right to education, keeping girls in secondary school, and giving them access to comprehensive sexuality education, are vital for their wellbeing and health.

Similarly, there has been a notable shift in attitudes towards LGBTQI communities, with a majority of countries refraining from criminalizing individuals based on sexual orientation or gender identity. To date, 38 countries have pledged to end HIV-related stigma and discrimination. Laos is one of these countries. 

But for the world to deliver on its promise to end AIDS by 2030, urgent action is needed to advance the protection of the human rights of everyone, everywhere.  

Every day in 2022, three people were newly infected with HIV in Laos, one of whom was a young person aged 15–24 years old. The ability of the youth to access and be provided with the needed health services, correct information, and community support is crucial to their ability to prevent HIV transmission. 

When marginalized communities are criminalized or stigmatized, their vulnerability to HIV infection increases, and their access to HIV prevention, treatment, care, and support services is obstructed. 

Effective responses to HIV/AIDS necessitate a comprehensive approach that centers on human rights. Countries leading the charge against the epidemic have prioritized repealing discriminatory laws, implementing non-discrimination provisions, and empowering marginalized groups to lead the response. Laos has demonstrated its commitment to this cause by joining the Global Partnership to end HIV-related stigma and discrimination and implementing action plans across various four settings (health care, education, communities, and workplace). 

Such steps and paths based on human rights strengthen entire societies, making them better equipped to deal with the challenges we face today and those that are emerging. 

We have hope from communities on the frontlines. As Dr. Martin Luther King noted, “Social progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of people.”   

It is the communities most affected by discrimination that are leading the pushback against the erosion of their right to health, against the right to life. They are uniting their efforts to protect and advance human rights. They need, and deserve, all our support.

Protecting everyone’s rights is not a favor to any group, but it is the way that we can protect everyone’s health, end AIDS, and create happier societies for all.