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HIV laws don’t protect women

August 27, 2009

Criminalizing HIV

HIV laws were originally put into place to reduce the number of people infected with HIV and protect those who are not yet infected. For example, in Sierra Leone, a mother who transmits HIV to her child can be fined or even jailed up to seven years.  The number of people infected with HIV is not reduced because of these laws. In many countries in Africa (for example: in addition to Sierra Leone: Egypt, Angola, Zimbabwe and Malawi), where these HIV laws are rampant and where 61 percent of adults (ages 15+) living with HIV/AIDS are female,  these anti-HIV laws hurt women rather than helping them.

Malawi has drafted a bill into legislation that would criminalize those who willfully transmit HIV to others.  For example, this law could be used to prosecute pregnant women who infect their infants and would force sex workers to be tested for HIV. Seodi White, the national coordinator of Women and Law in Southern Africa in Malawi, says that the law is targeting the wrong women:

That is a fundamental human rights issue, and we are totally against that. At the same time, it doesn’t mean we’re against any form of criminalization. In Southern Africa, mainly it’s men having multiple sexual relations, and men who transmit [HIV] recklessly and even maliciously. So there has to be a level of responsibility that the law can capture.

Michaela Clayton, director of the AIDS and Rights Alliance for Southern Africa (ARASA), agrees with White’s sentiment: “In Africa, most people who know their HIV status are female, because most testing occurs at natal health care sites,” she states, “The result is that most of those who will be prosecuted will be women, because they know, or ought to know, their HIV status.”

With these laws in place, people are less likely to get tested for HIV in order to prevent themselves from being fined or going to jail. This also means that less people will be on ARV (antiretroviral therapy, the drug combination that prolongs the life of someone infected with HIV), because it requires that you know your HIV status before taking ARVs.

HIV anti-discrimination laws

There are also countries, such as Niger, that penalize discrimination against people living with HIV/AIDS. You’re probably thinking, “Wait, that’s awesome!” – but not so fast. It is reported that this two-year old law in Niger, where the HIV/AIDs rate is among the lowest in the African continent (approximately less than 1% of the population is infected with HIV/AIDS, according to UNAIDS), is ineffective because of the lack of law enforcement.

The anti-discrimination law, which “guarantees HIV-positive individuals the right to health care, employment, social security, education, health insurance and freedom of movement,” is not well-known in the country. Since the law was enacted, many women (who are more vulnerable than men to HIV discrimination) are still experiencing lack of quality health care, education, employment, and even risk losing their children as a result of their HIV status.

When HIV left them few job options, HIV-positive women go to NGO Bafouneye to learn skills, defend rights

When HIV left them few job options, HIV-positive women go to NGO Bafouneye to learn skills, defend rights

One NGO in Niger, called Bafouneye (meaning life in the local Zarma language), works with HIV-infected divorced women and widows, enforcing the anti-discrimination law in their own way. Bafouneye helps women to negotiate rights with their ex-husbands and the group trains them to start small businesses. The organization’s president, Conté, says that:

Whether women are knitting, fabric-dyeing or tailoring, the real objective is forgetting. We are here to help them forget the discrimination they face.

Unfortunately, due to the lack of enforcement of the non-discrimination HIV law, Bafouneye is unable to defend its members legally. There is talk about strengthening the enforcement of this law under the Nigerien government’s council against AIDS, but so far nothing has happened.

What should be done about HIV laws

Hmmph, good question. I was wondering that myself. First of all, in regards to an anti-discrimination law against people living with HIV/AIDS, I think that all countries should not only have this, but reinforce it.

But in regards to the criminalization of HIV, I think these laws need to be amended in a way that protect women, not hurt them. Obviously there are cases of men who willfully or unwillfully (because they don’t know their HIV status) infect their wives, mistresses, and girlfriends with HIV, and that needs to stop. One of the roots of the problem with criminalizing HIV is that men don’t get tested for HIV as much as women do, which means that women are going to be criminalized more than men.

Maybe making a mandatory law that all people get tested for HIV (this law is being considered in the Ugandan Parliament) is the solution? Again, not sure if that would work either (for example, who would pay for the test?) and how much it would be enforced.

What are your thoughts on HIV laws? Do they help or hinder the safety and well-being of women and the spread of HIV/AIDS?

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