Rights Groups Groan As Uganda Bolsters AIDS Stigma

It seems straightforward enough; Uganda’s legislators passed a law on Tuesday called the HIV Prevention and Control Act that makes pregnant mothers and their mates submit to blood tests and criminalizes those who willfully pass on HIV to others.

But several non-governmental offices in Uganda, like Human Rights Watch, the Health Global Advocacy Project (GAP), and the Uganda Network on Law, Ethics and HIV/AIDS, immediately sounded the alarm about the measures, which they say will only make life worse for those in Uganda already suffering from HIV or AIDS.

“For Uganda to address its HIV epidemic effectively,” said Dorah Kiconco of the Uganda Network on Law, Ethics and HIV/AIDS in a statement on the HRW website, “it needs to partner with people living with HIV, not blame them, criminalize them, and exclude them from policy-making. The president should not sign this bill and instead ensure a rights-based approach, recognizing that people living with HIV will prevent transmission if they are empowered and supported.”

President Yoweri Museveni has three months to sign the legislation into law, according to the BBC.

Those who criminally pass on the HIV virus would be subject to a $1,900 (USD) fine under the new legislation. In addition to pregnant women and their partners being required to take a blood test, medical practitioners would be allowed to tell anyone they’d like about a person’s status as either HIV-positive or HIV-negative.

The president of the Uganda Medical Association, Margaret Mungherera, told the BBC that the country had made strides to de-stigmatize HIV and AIDS, only to see those advances eroded by this new legislation.

“We have spent time telling people to channel their energies into making sure that they get tested, and if positive get treatment, and live productive lives,” Mungherera said. “We have told them it’s pointless to focus on who infected whom. This law is going to reverse all that.”

Ugandans in support of the legislation claim that the measures would further protect female sexual partners from being infected by men who might forget to mention in their pick-up lines the part about being HIV-positive. It’s this type of aggressive stance against HIV/AIDs, these same supporters say, that’s pushed Uganda’s HIV infection rate from its high of 30 percent of the population two decades ago back down to below 10 percent again.

Those against the current tactic, however, believe that numbers could start rising yet again because of the stigma it reasserts.

“This HIV bill is yet another step backward in the fight against AIDS in Uganda,” says Human Rights Watch senior Africa researcher Maria Burnett in the HRW statement. “It is founded on stigma and discrimination and based on approaches that have been condemned by international health agencies as ineffective and violating the rights of people living with HIV.”

Added Asia Russell, an international policy director at Health GAP: “At the upcoming international AIDS conference, Uganda will be the example to all the countries gathered of how not to write laws on the HIV response. Parliamentarians are doing precisely the opposite of what Uganda should be doing to fight HIV.”

Much is at stake. According to the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amFAR), more than 35 million people are now living with HIV or AIDS worldwide. Of those, 70 percent live in Sub-Saharan Africa.

[Images courtesy of Bing and the BBC]

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