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Criminalising HIV/AIDS: Not a win-win situation
Publish Date: Apr 15, 2009
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By Andrew Bahemuka

AFTER nearly 30 years of addressing the HIV/AIDS pandemic, Uganda has reinforced the importance of breaking the silence around the epidemic, talking openly about HIV, and encouraging people to live positively.

Presently the Government seeks to complement the existing policy framework on HIV/AIDS with an overarching legal response.
The Government’s push to come up with the HIV/AIDS Prevention and Control Bill, 2008 is driven by the wish to respond to serious concerns about the ongoing rapid spread of HIV/AIDS in the country; coupled by what is perceived to be a failure of existing HIV prevention efforts.

However, applying criminal law to HIV exposure or transmission, except in very limited circumstances, does the opposite. It reinforces the stereotype that people living with HIV are immoral and dangerous criminals, rather than, like everyone else, people endowed with responsibility, dignity and human rights.

In some countries, which have passed the law, women have been prosecuted for mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT) of HIV. This is particularly outrageous when globally prevention of mother-to-child transmission coverage is only at 33%.

In resource poor settings, criminalisation is likely to put the blame solely on the woman for transmission that she may be unable to prevent due to dismally poor PMTCT coverage.

Criminalising HIV transmission does nothing to address the real problem which is women’s overall lack of power in society. Women often learn they are HIV positive before their male partners because they are more likely to access health services and thus are blamed for bringing the HIV virus into the relationship, according to a UNAIDS report.

Criminalisation therefore, is unlikely to prevent new infections or reduce women’s vulnerability to HIV. Criminalisation may harm women rather than assist them, and negatively impact both on public health and human rights.

Criminalising HIV exposure or transmission is generally an unjust and ineffective public policy. The obvious exception involves cases where individuals purposely or maliciously transmit HIV with the intent to harm others. Article 13 in particular provides for compulsory testing of targeted groups (drug abusers, sexual offenders and commercial sex workers) contrary to the international guidelines on HIV/AIDS and human rights.

The targeted groups are predominantly vulnerable and marginalised categories who should, in fact, be subjects of protection by the state. In these cases, existing criminal laws can and should be used rather than passing HIV-specific laws.

In addition, the Government should effectively prosecute all cases of sexual violence and ensure that rape in marriage is recognised as a crime. This is unlikely to happen soon with the Government’s delay in passing the Domestic Relations Bill, the Sexual Offences Bill and the Domestic Violence Bill.

Criminalisation of HIV immediately invokes stigma, discrimination and a disincentive for voluntary testing, and access to care and treatment. Save for a few cases, most people who transmit HIV either do so not knowing they are infected and not knowing they are transmitting HIV, or because they fear to reveal their HIV status.

Examples include women in abusive relationships who may fear to disclose their status for fear of the repercussions. Even in these cases, however, the creation of HIV-specific offences is generally not warranted, as existing criminal laws are sufficient to punish individuals who specifically intend to transmit HIV to others.

For example, laws against causing bodily harm can be applied to HIV transmission. Even under criminal law, caution has to be taken where there was no significant risk of HIV transmission or where a person:

-Did not know that he or she was HIV-positive
-Disclosed his or her HIV-positive status to the person at risk (or had reason to believe the other person was aware of his status)

-Did not disclose his or her HIV-positive status because of fear of violence or other consequences.

-Took risk-reducing measures (such as practising safer sex through using a condom or other precautions), or

-Previously agreed on a level of mutually acceptable risk with the other person.
In view of the above, HIV/AIDS specific legislation is not a necessity and should not be encouraged. The Government should focus on empowering people living with HIV to seek HIV testing, disclose their status, and practise safer sex without fear of stigma and discrimination.

The Government could aim at empowering HIV-positive persons by enacting and enforcing anti-discrimination laws and promoting social campaigns to reduce stigma. In order to slow down the spread of the HIV epidemic, vast numbers of people would have to be prevented from having unsafe sex, sharing syringes, or engaging in other risky behaviour, which no HIV-specific criminal law could possibly do.

HIV risk behaviour is prevalent in prisons, and most prison systems continue to reject introduction of evidence-informed prevention measures such as condoms and sterile injecting equipment and fail to undertake measures to reduce the prevalence of rape and other forms of sexual violence.

There is need therefore, for the Government to consult widely with the different stakeholders to make the current bill, human rights responsive. That is when we shall consolidate the gains the country has made in the HIV/AIDS struggle.

The writer is the policy advocacy officer of Uganda Women’s Network

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