Mandatory HIV testing, mandatory HIV disclosure and criminalization are among the features of the HIV/AIDS Prevention and Management Bill that is heading to Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni for his approval.
If enacted, the bill’s hard-line approach would make it more challenging to halt the AIDS epidemic in Uganda, because it would discourage HIV-positive people from getting tests and treatment they need, activists say.
Many aspects of the bill would significantly affect health workers who provide care for people living with HIV, including HIV-positive gay men and trans individuals.
News accounts disagree over whether the bill is close to passage or has already passed in Parliament.
IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, reported that the bill passed Parliament on May 8 and is now awaiting presidential assent.
The Uganda-based Daily Monitor’s report was somewhat confusing, stating both that the bill passed and that parliamentary debate on the bill would resume on May 13.
Several clauses were passed without the amendments sought by a broad network of activists. On April 2, the Uganda Network on Law, Ethics and HIV/AIDS, a network 43 organisations, had called upon the parliamentary committee to ensure amendments were made to this law. Dorah Musinguzi, executive director of that network, said last week the bill was “as good as a plate of food with a bit of poison.”
When legislators approved Clause 41, which would make deliberate spread of HIV infection a crime, activists reportedly stormed out of Parliament in protest.
“The clause should have been deleted because it is not practicable and will create a bigger problem. HIV is an infection and if you criminalize the spread of an infection, you are limiting chances of preventing it,” said Ms Florence Buluba, Executive Director of the National Community of Women Living with HIV.
“The good thing is it provides for counselling and funding but it will not achieve the desired goals with Article 39 and 41 in the Bill,” Ms. Musinguzi added.
Clause 14 would compel mandatory HIV testing for men along with their pregnant partners. Any person suspected of sexual offences would also tested for HIV.
Clause 19 of the bill would compel parents to reveal their HIV status to their children.
Clause 39 would provide a five-year prison sentence or a fine of 240,000 shillings (U.S. $95) for anyone convicted of attempting to transmit HIV.
Clause 41 of the HIV Prevention and Control Bill would further criminalize the intentional spread of HIV/AIDS. Clause 41(1) states that a person convicted of willfully and intentionally transmitting HIV/AIDS to another person shall be liable to a fine of not more than 4.8 million shillings (U.S. $1,900) or imprisonment for not more than 10 years, or both.
That clause would bring Uganda in line with existing laws in Burundi, Kenya and Tanzania, leaving Rwanda as the only member of the East African Community that does not criminalize deliberate HIV transmission.
Under Clause 44, it would be a crime for anyone to give misleading statements or information regarding HIV/AIDS. The penalty would be imprisonment for up to 10 years or a fine of 4.8 million shillings (U.S. $1,900).
“Despite years of engagement and labouring to explain the dangers on an HIV-specific criminal law, Parliament has refused to be advised. When experts on HIV research and management attempted to speak, [lawmakers] still failed to heed to the key concerns,” Musinguzi told IRIN.
“If we have not managed to test 67 percent of Ugandans for HIV without a law that punishes transmission, will this number improve when citizens know that more legal burdens are added to testing? The answer is no. Will their behaviour improve because of this fear? No. Will we have helped the HIV situation then? No. We shall have more people transmit HIV in ignorance of their status. Laws do little to change behaviour, instead it takes behaviour underground,” she said.
Not all parts of the bill are punitive:
- Clause 5 seeks to promote professional counseling for HIV patients.
- Clause 28 would establish an HIV/AIDS Trust Fund, which could receive money generated by local taxes, to supplement anti-AIDS funding from abroad.
In the last five years, HIV prevalence in Uganda has gone up from 6.4 percent to 7.3 percent; and 1.5 million Ugandans are HIV-positive with about 150,000 people newly infected annually. Among Ugandan men who have sex with men, the HIV infection rate is an estimated 12 to 33 percent.