Witch-hunting minorities: the skeletons behind Uganda’s new proposed HIV/AIDS Control Bill 2009
The law will drive people, especially minorities underground; in the face of possible prosecution and forced disclosure, most people will hide way,(shy away). There would be no reason to take tests in fear of prosecution. Besides, Uganda already has laws on the penal code that criminalizes sex work and LGBTI community.
By Kikonyogo N.Kivumbi
At about 6.7%prevalence rate of Hiv/aids in the general population( NAFOPHANU estimates), Uganda government is stuck with the statistics for some years now. In an effort to appease donors and electorate for the 2011 general presidential campaign in which the current President Yoweri Museveni is contesting the fourth term after 23 years in power, the blame for the stuck statistics has been delivered to the door step of minority groups in the country.
The thinking in the ruling party is that sex workers and LGBTI are the problem why the rates are not going down. Then another vulnerable target are the 20% of Ugandans who have taken voluntary counseling and testing to establish their status, being seen as another burden for the government. The Bill title tells it all “control” rather than “management.”
But the HIV/AIDS Prevention and Control Bill 2009 due for tabling soon before Ugandan parliament has hall marks of a desperate regime, out to witch hunt the minority. It is a calculated campaign to escape blame for the donor withdraw of funding for HIV/AIDS, care, management due to poor governance and corruption. A number of major donors are not committing new resources to finance Uganda’s Hiv Management.
If enacted, the proposed law would require mandatory disclosure of one’s HIV status failure of which would be regarded as ‘criminal’ and attempting to or, intentionally transmitting the virus. Failure to use a condom where one knows their HIV status would constitute a criminal offence making them liable for prosecution. UHSPA-Uganda and partner,NAFOPHANU are undertaking public senstisations on the implications of the proposed bill.
But given Uganda’s undoubted, collective contribution with other key stakeholders including local communities, legislators, local leaders, religious institutions, civil society, private sector and development partners, why would government or any progressive (patriotic) citizen consider this proposed law as an effective tool or rather, a considered way of responding to the epidemic?
It was a call for unity, concerted effort by all actors, openness in addressing the epidemic, clear and consistent messages, respected committed and visionary leadership by the President of Uganda that reduced incidence levels and won the country global recognition.
Disappointingly now, the Government, some Government leaders (I believe not all members of government support the bill) perhaps frustrated by stagnant prevalence rates. Yet, the only apparent outcome is that the once united actors and stakeholders are headed for a breakdown.
Instituting criminal laws to punish persons who may or may not transmit HIV virus poses a danger to the consolidated effort and lessons learnt over time. However considered Government has been, even after serious thought and analysis, it is difficult to identify any specific rationale that would mitigate the intended legislation.
In strategic terms, this bill would be counterproductive in slowing the epidemic, if at all. An effective national response is that which is designed to meet specific needs of the country, those that target particular situations that make people vulnerable to HIV and its impact and, use of particular strengths of the country’s people and institutions. An effective response must address the epidemic’s likely consequence on individuals, families and the society’s over all development plans.
The HIV Bill has fronted several fears as follows
1. The law will drive people, especially minorities underground; in the face of possible prosecution and forced disclosure, most people will hide way,(shy away). There would be no reason to take tests in fear of prosecution. Besides, Uganda already has laws on the penal code that criminalizes sex work and LGBTI community. The Equal Opportunities Act 2007 that sets up an equal opportunities commission is mandated by the same law not to entertain complaints from minorities, because their behavior is “morally not acceptable by the majority.” This bill also seeks the creation of an information hub, whose confidentiality is not guaranteed, and can cause LGBTIs problems and hate crimes if leaked.
2. It shall be counter-productive - as people shun HIV services and treatment for all possible fears that arise with the provisions of the law, prevention and control cannot be achieved. Taking a an HIV test is the beginning point for both control and prevention, however the Bill will deter this effort by empowering medical practitioners to release test results to third parties. Today only 20%of the Ugandan population have taken an HIV Test and know their sero status, if this Bill is passed into law this situation is likely to be aggravated leading to reduced uptake of HIV/AIDS services in the country. Therefore, Universal Access will remain a myth for Uganda
3. It will indiscriminately harass women – most women get to know their HIV status (tests) before their male counterparts as they interface with medical facilities more often. Giving them an extra burden to disclose their status mandatorily as a blanket requirement may subject them to violence, abandonment and abuse as they are usually blamed for bringing the virus. In our societies, women cannot negotiate condom use, yet failure to use one while they know their status will warrant such a woman punishment for intentional transmission of the HIV virus.
4. May breakdown families who are already vulnerable. Opening a window for prosecution will encourage family breakdowns where one partner who gets to know their status and blames it on the other and files a case in court. It may never get proved, but the family structure will have been distorted, partners desert each other with the consequent burden born by the poor orphans. HIV status is bad enough for the children but humiliating and sometimes vicious litigation between their parents would tear their lives apart.
5. Is not situation-specific or realistic: the conditions for this law to operate are not realistic, it is extremely difficult to prove who infected the other and therefore it is to no effect. The judiciary in this country is very much strained and it takes long to pass judgment. How many lives would be destroyed if it takes an average 5 to 7 years to get judgment? Worse, the police force is ineffective (not very effective) the language?? we need the police on our side and are known to fail to comprehend and prosecute cases of this nature.
6. Selective prosecution: The bill targets the 20% of Ugandans that have tested and know their status and presumes that some of those knowingly and intentionally transmit HIV. What about the rest of the population who do not know their status yet transmit and cannot be found in the ambit of this law? This is unfair, obnoxious and unreasonable and cannot possibly be regarded as an efficacious law.
7. Increased stigma and discrimination. The moment HIV is construed with criminalization and then people go into hiding, those living with HIV will suffer societal victimization since they would now be regarded as threats to public health. As a nation, we can still do better since on this one, we are all in it together. Successful public health interventions thrive on organized community efforts and willingness, other than the law which tends to negate community efforts
Support UHSPA-Uganda to further its advocacy campaign for the HIV/AIDS Control Bill not to victimize minorities. Email: email@example.com