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Web Exclusives: Alumni Spotlight

April 20, 2005

Joanne Csete ’77 with a child orphaned by AIDS in Zambia. (Courtesy Joanne Csete ’77)

Fighting 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.