By Joan Akello
The activists say criminalisation is counterproductive to HIV prevention strategies as it will serve only to target, persecute and punish people living with HIV. This is after members of parliament passed the HIV Prevention and Management Bill 2010 on May 13.
“Uganda is already facing a serious backslide from its early advances in responding to HIV, Uganda is currently one of three African countries experiencing increases in their HIV prevalence rates previously from 6.5% to 7.3 %. The passages of this Bill will only serve to increase this backslide and the President must save Uganda from this backlash”, says Margaret Happy, the Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights Officer, ICW Eastern Africa.
Noerine Kaleeba founder of The Aids Support Organisation (TASO), among the activists speaking to journalists at the Uganda Network on Law, Ethics & HIV/AIDS (UGANET) office in Ntinda on May 14, agrees. She says responding to AIDS is a commitment and punitive clauses in HIV prevention law will not reverse the HIV/AIDS prevalence rate s. Uganda’s Health Ministry 2012 AIDS Indicator Survey showed that an estimated 1.5 million Ugandans were living with HIV with at least 140,000 new infections annually, including 28,000 from maternal to child transmission.
The activists are concerned that criminalisation will result in increased stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV, which are key drivers of the HIV epidemic. These measures will disproportionately impact women, who are more likely to know their HIV status through pregnancy related medical care.
They are particularly concerned with clauses 21(e), 39 and 49 that address mandatory HIV testing for pregnant women and their partners, empowers medical providers to disclose a client’s HIV status to others, not only their sexual partner but those they think are at a risk, and also criminalises ‘willful and intentional’ HIV transmission, attempted transmission, and behaviour that might result in transmission by those who know their HIV status
Clauses 39 (‘attempted transmission of HIV’) and 41 (‘intentional transmission of HIV’) were adopted in the debate last week in parliament, as were clauses 13, 14 and 15 on mandatory and routine testing.
But Buikwe County South legislator Michael R. Bayiga Lulume a member of the parliamentary committee on health says this law is an additional tool in HIV prevention that targets bad elements within the community of those living with HIV who use or may use power relations(those in positions of authority) to infect others.
“This law has undergone a lot of consultation. It empowers people living with HIV to demand government to ensure that they are treated,” Bayiga told The Independent.
The activists says they are happy that title of the bill, originally HIV Prevention and Control bill, was changed to HIV Prevention and management bill and that it also stipulates the obligation of the state in providing health care services to people living with HIV after 5 years on the shelf of parliament.
“For Uganda to address its HIV epidemic effectively, it needs to partner with people living with HIV, not blame them, criminalize them, and exclude them from policy making,” said Dorah Kiconco, executive director of Uganda Network on Law, Ethics & HIV/AIDS. “The president should not sign this bill and instead ensure a rights-based approach, recognizing that people living with HIV will prevent transmission if they are empowered and supported.”
“Male involvement is better encouraged not with law. It takes mobilisation and sensitisation like what the president did, Kiconco added, “The president was not obligated to test but he wanted to lead the way of testing and members of parliament can rally citizens to go for testing.”
Some activists say the law is political as it might be used to prosecute politicians who intend to participate in the forth coming elections and will also increase community diagnosis of certain individuals.
“It is false that we passed this bill out of emotions or politics because nobody knows the Sero status of MPS. Some MPs do not even know their status. Our work is to make laws, the judiciary implements them. ”
But Kaleeba says “The ninth parliament has gone into a frenzy of passing bills. I think that they are enjoying it but I still appeal to them to be responsible to citizens they represent.”