Csete ’77 with a child orphaned by AIDS in Zambia. (Courtesy
Joanne Csete ’77)
for human rights Joanne Csete ’77 works to protect populations
affected by AIDS
For Joanne Csete ’77, the AIDS crisis in Africa hit home
around 1997, when she was working as a health and nutrition specialist
for UNICEF (the United Nations Children’s Fund) in Nairobi,
Kenya. “We could see that all the health centers and community-based
organizations we were working with were being decimated by AIDS-related
deaths,” Csete recalls. It got to the point, she says, where
her office regularly had to reschedule meetings around the funerals
of local officials it had been working with.
Csete soon realized that her job description — helping to
improve the nutrition of African children — was becoming irrelevant.
“The children were not living long enough to benefit from
our usual measures,” Csete says. So she turned her focus to
AIDS issues, first within the United Nations and then, from 2000
to 2004, as the first AIDS program director for the nonprofit Human
Rights Watch. And in December 2004, Csete became executive director
of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, a Montreal-based group that
specializes in an often-overlooked aspect of the global AIDS crisis:
legal and human-rights issues. The network addresses these issues
both in Canada and overseas, often cooperating with local organizations
in each country.
Csete’s organization is focusing on women, drug users, and
prison inmates, because they are some of the fastest-growing segments
of the HIV-positive population. Csete is advocating greater access
to needle-exchanges and methadone treatment for intravenous drug
users, as well as programs to protect prostitutes and prison inmates
from contracting HIV. Csete’s group recently released a study
that analyzed prison-based needle-exchange programs in Germany,
Switzerland, Spain, Moldova, Belarus, and Kyrgyzstan. It found that
such programs were effective in decreasing the spread of HIV, and
it urged that they be replicated elsewhere.
The Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network also is working to improve
the legal status of women, especially in African countries where
deeply ingrained sex discrimination limits women’s access
to information about safe sex, and discourages protective measures
such as the use of condoms. In addition, women in many African countries
are barred from inheriting their husbands’ estates, which
limits widows’ ability to pay for treatment if they contract
the disease. The network is working with grassroots AIDS and women’s
organizations around the world to implement model legislation that
would eliminate such legal barriers.
The network also successfully lobbied the Canadian Parliament
to make it easier for Canada’s generic-drug manufacturers
to export AIDS drugs — a key advance in the effort to give
AIDS patients in poorer countries the drugs they need.
A New Jersey native who majored in economics at Princeton before
settling into a career in teaching and public health in sub-Saharan
Africa, Csete says the challenges of fighting AIDS-related abuses
remain immense, because of the scale of the problem and a shortage
of money and attention in wealthier countries. Says Csete: “It’s
hard to get people interested in fighting AIDS, because it’s
still associated with marginalized people.”
By Louis Jacobson ’92
Louis Jacobson ’92 is deputy editor of Roll Call,
a newspaper covering Congress.