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Russia: Report Denounces Discrimination Against Mothers and Children With HIV

  • Claire Bigg --> A private AIDS initiative in St. Petersburg (official site) HIV-positive pregnant women, mothers, and their children suffer widespread discrimination and abuse in Russia, Human Rights Watch charges in a report released today. The rights watchdog accuses the Russian government of turning a blind eye to the mistreatment HIV-positive mothers and their children face in medical and child-care institutions. According to the report, growing numbers of children born to HIV-positive mothers spend the first years of their lives in hospital wards. RFE/RL spoke to Rachel Denber, the deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch.

Moscow, 15 July 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Human Rights Watch’s 41-page report paints a bleak picture of the treatment reserved for HIV-positive mothers, pregnant women, and their children. The Russian government says the country has 300,000 HIV-positive people, although Russian and foreign experts put this figure at 1 million.

Discrimination against people with HIV and AIDS is rife in Russia, but mothers and small children are a particularly vulnerable group. The report laments that Russian doctors often fail to assist HIV-infected women in reducing the risk of transmitting the disease to their children.

Refuse Treatment

Instead, Denber says, they insult them or even refuse to treat them.

“What we mean by discrimination is verbally abusive treatment by doctors who don’t want to be treating HIV-positive women because they are afraid of the disease, or because they think the women might be drug-dependent and only deserving of scorn. They are very rough with them, they are very rude with them, neglectful, and sometimes they will simply refuse to treat them,” Denber said.

Human Rights Watch’s report cites official statistics according to which almost 10,000 HIV-positive women have given birth since 1997. Up to 20 percent of them abandon their babies. Russians tend to be relatively ignorant about AIDS, which has been spreading dramatically since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The general lack of knowledge about AIDS in Russia means many orphanages are unwilling to take children born to HIV-infected mothers, even if the child has yet to be diagnosed with the disease.

Casual Contact

Denber says many child-care workers still believe the disease can be contracted through casual contact.

“Regular orphanages are very reluctant to take children born to HIV-infected women. They are reluctant to take them because they fear catching the disease, because they aren’t adequately educated about how the disease is actually spread," she said. "They think that one can contract the disease through casual contact, by drinking out of the same glass or by hugging or kissing a child.”

As a result, the report notes that growing numbers of children born to HIV-positive mothers are segregated in hospital wards for at least the first 18 months of their lives. This is the age at which Russian tests are able to determine whether the child has HIV.

Denber says hospital wards are unable to provide the care and attention needed for the child to develop properly. “[The child] is being fed, he’s being clothed, and his diapers are being changed, but he’s not being stimulated in any way, he doesn’t really have access to all the things children needs to develop properly," she said. "The only stimulation children could get is whatever underpaid and overworked hospital staff could give them out of the kindness of their own hearts.”

'Lamentably Failing'

A handful of hospitals have created their own orphanages offering specialized care for children abandoned by HIV-infected mothers. But these cases are still distressingly rare. In its report, Human Rights Watch criticizes the government for “lamentably failing," to respect national and international legislation to protect the rights of these children.

It also blames Russian authorities for their reluctance to publicly address the issue of AIDS even though Russia has one of the fastest-growing infection rates in the world. Many observers say this reluctance is inherited from the prudish Soviet past, when sex-related issues were rarely addressed in public. Human Rights Watch also called on Russian President Vladimir Putin and his government to do more to promote awareness of AIDS and fight the widespread discrimination of HIV-mothers and their children.


The United Nations has issued its annual report on the AIDS epidemic. Here are some of its findings:

  • There are currently an estimated 40.3 million people living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Of those, 17.5 million are women and 2.3 million are children under the age of 15.
  • There were an estimated 4.9 million new HIV infections in 2005, including 700,000 children under the age of 15.
  • An estimated 3.1 million people, including 570,000 children, died of AIDS in 2005.
  • According to the report, more than 25 million people have died of AIDS worldwide since the disease was recognized in 1981.
  • In Eastern Europe and Central Asia, the number of HIV-positive people reached 1.6 million in 2005, up from 1.2 million in 2003. The bulk of people living with HIV in the region are in the Russian Federation and Ukraine. "Ukraine's epidemic continues to grow, with more new HIV infections occurring each year, while the Russian Federation has the biggest AIDS epidemic in all of Europe," the report states. A private Russian survey cited in the report found "no postive changes in sexual behaviour, with condom use decreasing slightly among people in their twenties."
  • In Central Asia, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have seen the most dramatic increases of HIV infections. In the Caucasus, the situation is described "relatively stable."

See also:

Central Asia: AIDS Project Seeks To Avert Epidemic

Eastern Europe: European Commission Warns Of 'Resurgent' HIV/AIDS Epidemic

Listen to a short interview by RFE/RL's Tajik Service with Gregory Henning Mikkelsen, director of EU team for a joint EU/UN AIDS initiative. In the November 21, 2005, interview, Mikkelsen describes the epidemic in Central Asia.
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    Claire Bigg

    Claire Bigg covers Russia, Ukraine, and the post-Soviet world, with a focus on human rights, civil society, and social issues. Send story tips to​