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Ending HIV stigma

Woman wrongly convicted of spreading HIV released

Kampala, Uganda | IAN KATUSIIME | During the Christmas holiday of 2018, Sylvia Komuhangi went on a tour in northern Uganda and decided to visit her friend Grace Anena in Kitgum. It was a visit that would change her life. And her life changing experience was sparked by her HIV status. She is HIV Positive.

Trouble started one night, when Komuhangi and Anena were left alone in the house with the baby of Anena’s niece, Eunice Lakot. When Lakot came back, she reportedly found reddish swellings in her baby’s armpits and was alarmed. She secretly contacted her other relatives.

Komuhangi and Anena recall being woken up one morning to the sound of people in their compound.

“They told me ‘You are a stranger in this home,” Komuhangi recalls, “Some were local authorities in the Local Council.”

Komuhangi and Anena were arrested and charged on December 27, 2018 before the Kitgum Magistrates Court.

Komuhangi was charged with committing a “negligent act likely to spread disease contrary to Section 171 of the Penal Code Act of the Republic of Uganda” while Anena was charged with causing grievous bodily harm.

Anena got bail and was acquitted later while Komuhangi was denied bail on grounds that she was a non-resident of the area and remanded to Kitgum Prison.

During her detention in police cells, she was tested and found HIV positive and this appears to have sped up the pace of Komuhangi’s conviction. The Magistrates Court sentenced her to two years in prison in June; six months after her ordeal started. Even when Lakot’s baby was tested and found to be HIV negative, Komuhangi was kept in jail.

One newspaper article labeled Komuhangi as a “monster” at the time of her arrest. Another newspaper ran a story under the headline; “Woman gets two year jail term for infecting baby with HIV blood.”

Komuhangi would possibly still be languishing in jail if her case had not caught the attention of lawyers from the NGO, Uganda Network on Law, Ethics and HIV/AIDS (UGANET). The lawyers learnt of Komuhangi’s case after her conviction. UGANET appealed at the Gulu High Court and the conviction was overturned on Aug.29.

Another step in the fight against HIV stigma

On Sept. 12, UGANET held a press conference in Kampala at which they described Komuhangi’s case as another example of the unending stigma that persons living with HIV/AIDS face. They said Kamuhangi’s acquittal marked another step in the fight against spreading HIV stigma.

“This has set free the community of people living with HIV,” said Dora Musinguzi, the executive director of UGANET at the press briefing attended by other HIV/AIDS activists like Lillian Mworeko, the director of International Community of Women Living with HIV/AIDS. Dr. Stephen Watiiti, the chairman of the National Forum for People Living with HIV/AIDS Network in Uganda-(NAFOPHANU) was also present.

“Komuhangi was sentenced in unfair circumstances and on overblown facts. There was not enough rigour,” Musinguzi told the press.

Mworeko of the International Community of Women Living with HIV/AIDS commended court’s decision to acquit her. “This is a gender issue. HIV criminalisation affects women disproportionately,” she said.

She added that it makes it harder for women living with HIV to cope.

Change discriminatory laws

Mworeko urged the Constitutional Court to speed up Petition Number 24 of 2016 where the community of HIV activists challenged the HIV and AIDS Prevention and Control Act 2014.

Activists say the current HIV law is regressive and should be struck down. They argue that it criminalises transmission which intensifies discrimination. The HIV activists say that mandatory testing, provided in the law, is also discriminative.

“Parliament needs to resist criminal laws,” Mworeko said. She also urged courts, law enforcement agencies and media to exercise restraint.

The activists said the media should not spread stigma against persons living with HIV.  They said some reporting fuels discrimination against people living with HIV/AIDS. It was noted, however, that the media serves a positive role since UGANET learnt of Komuhangi’s conviction through a newspaper story.

Dr. Watiiti, who is open about his HIV positive status said there are over 1.3 million Ugandans living with HIV and called for an end to the prejudice toward them. “Being HIV positive does not make you a bad person. These days people with HIV are living longer.”

Rosemary Namubiru, a nurse, was in 2014 sentenced to three years in jail for criminal negligence over what seemed a potential infection of a baby with the HIV virus.

Her crime was that as an HIV positive nurse, she placed the life of a baby in danger when she pricked herself with an injection she was administering.

In her defence, Namubiru said she pricked herself accidentally as sometimes happens among medical workers. But her pleas were cast aside as police and swarms of media cameras swooped on her. Test results for HIV infection on the baby were negative but Namubiru still served her sentence.

When she was released after one year of her sentence, she reportedly got threats to harm her and had to travel to the countryside and stay away from her home in Kampala for several months for her safety. Since she was arrested, convicted and jailed, Komuhangi who worked as a school teacher lost her job. She is free now after eight months in jail but facing an uncertain future because of HIV stigma.


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