KENYA: Unease over new HIV transmission law
NAIROBI, 12 December 2008 (PlusNews) - In June 2006, a young woman in western Kenya died of HIV-related complications and left a list of about 100 people that she said she had infected with HIV. A new law, approved by the Kenyan president but yet to be implemented, is hoping to prevent wilful transmission.
The HIV and AIDS Prevention and Control Act 2006 has drawn mixed and very sharp reactions. Inviolata Mbwavi, an AIDS activist who went public about her status in 1994, warned that the legislation in its current form appeared to label HIV-infected people as dangerous human beings with whom people should not associate.
"When you criminalise HIV then we are going back to square [one] of trying to stigmatise the virus even more, yet we have not effectively dealt with the stigma associated with HIV. Why do we want to further burden those who are already burdened by coming up with HIV-specific legislation?"
The Kenyan government is divided on the matter. The National AIDS Control Council, a government body set up to coordinate HIV control activities, is strongly opposed to the section that puts the responsibility for not transmitting the virus on those already living with it.
"Why would one bother to go for a test when they already know it could be used against them in a court of law?" said Tom K'Opere, an advocate of the High Court, at a conference organised by the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights to discuss the merits and demerits of the legislation.
"It is ridiculous, because we all know that knowing one's status is one of the most effective ways of containing the scourge, yet we are now trying to discourage this by introducing such a law."
According to the National AIDS Control Council, most Kenyans do not know their status.
Supporters of the law, like Otiende Amollo, a lawyer and member of the task force that collected views from the public before the legislation was drafted, maintain it would go along way in protecting vulnerable groups like women and children, who are particularly vulnerable to sexual assault.
Anne Gathumbi, an officer of the Open Society Initiative for East Africa, which supports and promotes public participation in democratic governance and the rule of law, said: "We know that the majority of those who know their status are women. What we are doing by passing such a law is therefore to condemn people we are claiming to protect to jail."
The new legislation has also brought into question the responsibility of HIV-negative people. "What we are proposing in the law only touches those already [HIV]-positive. We should also look at the responsibility of those who do not have the virus," said Anne Marie, a civil society activist.
"Are we not forgetting that we should vouch for shared responsibility? Let us not create a law because we are desperate to show the world that we are doing something."
Another clause causing concern is the one that gives medical practitioners the authority to disclose the status of patients to their next of kin, violating their right to confidentiality. It remains to be seen whether Kenya will go ahead and implement these contentious clauses.
Kennedy Anyona*, who has lived with the virus for the past four years, says the responsibility of revealing one's status to anybody is a right that should not be delegated to any other party.
"I have a right to confidentiality and that cannot be trampled upon. The responsibility of revealing my status, which is the best thing to do however, rests with me," he said.
"Taking that away means I am being denied my human right to privacy and confidentiality, which are even enshrined in international laws to which Kenya is a signatory."