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NIGERIA: Workplace policy to protect HIV-positive people is "toothless"

Lagos, 12 July 2007 (IRIN) - Many HIV-positive Nigerians are still losing their jobs or being denied work because of their status. Activists say a national workplace policy to protect them from stigma and discrimination, adopted over two years ago, is practically toothless.

"The policy is not effective at all; most companies are only paying lip service to it," said Josephine Odikpo, Executive Director of the Centre for Rights and Development, in the port city of Lagos.

"There are many cases of discrimination against positive persons in workplaces. [People living with HIV/AIDS] are either denied employment by most companies, while those who were employed before knowing their status are known to have been sacked or, where they are not sacked, are not allowed access to treatment as often as required."

Odikpo has been handling the case of a man who was recently recruited from another company, where he had been employed for over 21 years, and was subsequently sacked ten days after starting his new job for failing an HIV test.

Efforts to get him reinstated have so far been futile, despite the involvement of the National Agency for the Control of AIDS (NACA), which declared that the company had acted wrongly in dismissing the affected person.

"The company, which is a World Bank Grantee and is supposedly implementing workplace policy, has refused to reinstate my client who, for now, prefers not to be named for fear of further stigma and discrimination which he may suffer if the public knows about his status," said Odikpo.

"This is a clear case of injustice, which we must not allow to continue if we must succeed in our effort to combat stigma and discrimination against positive persons, and encourage them to live openly and positively," she told IRIN/PlusNews.

There were many more similar cases, she said. Perhaps one of the most remarkable was that of Georgina Ahmamefule, who was sacked by her former employers for being HIV-positive. Seven years later her case remains unresolved, and suffered a major setback in 2000 when the presiding judge, Caroline Olufawo, barred her from entering the courtroom for fear that she might infect others.

''Most companies are only paying lip service to it''
Bede Ezefule, programme director of the Centre for Right to Health, whose organisation filed Ahmamefule's case in court, confirmed that it was yet to be heard as a result of several adjournments and changes of judges. He urged judges not to deny positive persons their rights.

Two years ago, Ahmamefule spoke out about the frustrating delays: "I hate to believe that, as a Nigerian, I cannot get justice in my country. I don't believe it is not possible to get relief for the injustice done to me. It is not about me, but about other people living with HIV/AIDS, who would still suffer stigmatisation and discrimination."

Worried that the attitude of judicial officers would further stigmatise positive people, the Lagos State AIDS Control Agency (LSACA) recently held an awareness workshop to educate them. The agency's public relations officer, Ronke Bello, told IRIN/PlusNews that there had been instances where magistrates had refused to hear cases involving people living with the virus, out of ignorance about HIV/AIDS.

"We are hopeful that with the sensitisation workshop the magistrates now know better and will no longer stigmatise positive persons. They are entitled to their fundamental human rights like any other persons and should not be denied justice just because of their status," Bello said.

Biodun Adetoro, country coordinator of Academy for Educational Development's SmartWork project, which is mobilising organisations to carry out HIV/AIDS workplace policies, commented that the government was also largely responsible for the poor implementation of HIV/AIDS workplace policies.

Many companies were not aware of the workplace policy and, unlike at the federal government level, many states and local governments were not concerned about adopting and implementing it. To make matters worse, the national policy had yet to be backed by an enabling law.

Nevertheless, Adetoro said there should be a way to enforce the workplace policy. "We don't have to wait until the National Assembly passes a law on the matter. There is no law on many things in the country, yet the government ensures that policies and pronouncements are obeyed by organisations."

Olusina Falana, Executive Secretary of the Nigeria Business Coalition on AIDS, said the policy would only be effective once it had been passed as law, as part of the anti-discrimination bill.

"As long as we don't have any legal instrument to back up the various workplace policies ... the documents will remain a mere framework, which may not be a substantial ground for suing a company for sacking a positive person on the basis of his or her status," Falana said.

After failing to get an anti-discrimination bill passed during the tenure of the last National Assembly, NACA officials are planning to represent the bill to the new assembly.

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Theme (s): Economy/Business - PlusNews, HIV/AIDS (PlusNews),

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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