Kampala — Activists in Uganda, where HIV prevalence is on the rise, have warned that new legislation criminalizing deliberate transmission of the virus will further undermine efforts to stem the AIDS epidemic and erode the rights of those living with HIV.
As well as setting out fines and jail terms of up to 10 years for those found guilty of “willful and intentional” transmission, the HIV/AIDS Prevention and Control Bill, passed by parliament on 8 May and now awaiting presidential assent, also obliges pregnant women and their partners to take HIV tests, and in some circumstances empowers health workers to unilaterally disclose a patient’s positive status to an at-risk partner or household member. It also obliges parents to tell their children of their status.
“Despite years of engagement and labouring to explain the dangers on an HIV-specific criminal law, parliament has refused to be advised. When experts on HIV research and management attempted to speak, [lawmakers] still failed to heed to the key concerns,” Dorah Kinconco Musinguzi, executive director of Uganda Network on Law, Ethics and HIV/AIDS (UgaNet), told IRIN.
“If we have not managed to test 67 percent of Ugandans for HIV without a law that punishes transmission, will this number improve when citizens know that more legal burdens are added to testing? The answer is no. Will their behaviour improve because of this fear? No. Will we have helped the HIV situation then? No. We shall have more people transmit HIV in ignorance of their status. Laws do little to change behaviour, instead it takes behaviour underground,” she said.
Over the past five years HIV prevalence in Uganda has risen from 6.4 to 7.3 percent.
“The evidence from the Ugandan Ministry of Health shows clearly – criminalization of HIV doesn’t work. It drives people away from services and fuels discrimination and fear,” Asia Russell of the HIV advocacy organization Health GAP, told IRIN.
Alex Ario, the national coordinator of the ministry’s AIDS Control Programme (ACP), said “the bill may not be that useful in my view. It does not add value to the current efforts. Actually, with dwindling support from donor communities to ACP as it is now, we would rather divert efforts to lobby government of Uganda to put more money for HIV activities rather than legislating against people with HIV.”
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