East Africa's Legislative Assembly has passed a regional HIV/AIDS Bill that seeks to protect the rights of people living with HIV and harmonize regional legislation and policy on the prevention and treatment of HIV.
Activists have welcomed the passing of the Bill, which, unlike some of the laws in the region's individual member states, does not criminalize the deliberate transmission of HIV.
"Criminalization impedes rather than promotes the fight against HIV, because it violates the rights of people living with HIV on many fronts," Nelson Otuoma, the coordinator of the Network of People Living with HIV and AIDS in Kenya (NEPHAK), told IRIN/PlusNews.
Member countries whose HIV legislation has criminalization clauses will be pressed to amend the laws to reflect the spirit of the regional Bill. Three of the East Africa Community's five member states - Burundi, Kenya and Tanzania - have passed HIV laws with clauses that criminalize wilful transmission, while Rwanda and Uganda have not yet passed legislation.
"This [regional] Bill has a human rights approach to HIV as a major component, and criminalization was never its intention. We expect countries to use this Bill as a template for their legislation and we will lobby towards that end,” said Joyce Abalo, a programme officer at the East Africa National Networks of AIDS Service Organizations (EANNASO).
"This Bill is an important first step towards strengthening HIV response in the region, because HIV issues must also be at the core of regional cooperation, which countries are quickly embracing," Abalo said. The proposed legislation also outlaws discrimination, guarantees rights to privacy and ensures the provision of health care, regardless of HIV status.
NEPHAK's Otuoma said the Bill would improve access to HIV services in the regional bloc. "You can't move freely to another country if you are not sure you will get your [HIV] treatment there. Now, should this bill become law, one knows that even he is Kenyan, he can get his treatment in Uganda."
The East Africa Community HIV and AIDS Prevention and Management Bill (2012) was passed by the East Africa Legislative Assembly on 23 April at its fifth session, held in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. The heads of state of the member countries are expected to assent to it before it becomes law.