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UGANDA: Draft HIV bill's good intentions could backfire

Kampala, 24 November 2008 (IRIN) - AIDS activists in Uganda have slammed a proposed new law that will force HIV-positive people to reveal their status to their sexual partners, and also allow medical personnel to reveal someone's status to their partner.

The HIV Prevention and Control Bill (2008) is intended to provide a legal framework for the national response to HIV, as well as protect the rights of individuals affected by HIV.

Activists agree that Uganda needs legislation to guide its HIV policy. "We want the law; as a matter of fact we are overdue in having a legal framework," said Beatrice Were, a leading HIV-positive campaigner.

However, they are concerned that the bill in its current form could worsen the difficulties many HIV-positive people experience.

Pregnant women will have to undergo compulsory testing, which proponents said would increase the number of women accessing prevention of mother-to-child HIV transmission (PMTCT) services; in 2007, only 600,000 pregnant women of 1.4 million were tested for HIV, 91,000 of whom were found to be infected.

Dr David Apuuli Kihumuro, head of the Uganda AIDS Commission, told IRIN/PlusNews that certain sections of the bill needed to be revised, for instance, the provision that HIV status disclosure would be mandatory for couples planning to marry.

"We have to think about the repercussions of this in a male-dominated society," he said, noting that many women were afraid of their husbands' reactions once they revealed their HIV status; at least three women have been killed by their husbands this year because they were positive.

Stella Kentutsi, programme manager at the National Forum of PHLA Networks in Uganda (NAFOPHANU), said medical practitioners usually had no way of knowing how a spouse or other sexual partners might react, and should therefore not be permitted to reveal an infected person's HIV status. "Even if the partner has a right to know ... forceful revelation is not okay," she said.

'Wilful' transmission

''How do you know who infects intentionally and wilfully and who does not? What makes it intentional or wilful''
The bill also criminalises - with a punishment of the death penalty - the intentional or wilful transmission of the virus. President Yoweri Museveni has said he "fully supports" an HIV/AIDS law that would criminalise deliberate transmission of the virus. There has been a recent public outcry over media reports of HIV-positive individuals infecting minors, which has gained support for the bill.

"If you push for ... punishment because someone is infected, you are discriminating and undermining the rights of people living with HIV," Were said.

Kentutsi asked: "How do you know who infects intentionally and wilfully and who does not?" What makes it intentional or wilful?"

Activists said applying criminal law to HIV-risk behaviour was likely to undermine prevention efforts and, rather than encouraging people to know their status, would actually deter them from seeking HIV testing.

The bill could also allow the government to avoid its responsibility to prevent HIV, and foist the blame for being positive on infected people.

"We should avoid creating scenarios where people living with HIV/AIDS are looked at either criminals or potential criminals," a recent statement by NAFOPHANU said.

"Rather than introducing laws criminalising HIV exposure and transmission, legislators must reform laws that stand in the way of HIV prevention and treatment."

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Theme (s): HIV/AIDS (PlusNews),

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

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