An HIV prevention bill passed by Ugandan lawmakers has caused an outrcy amongst those fighting for the rights of people living with HIV. The bill calls for mandatory HIV tests for pregnant women.
Anyone who knowingly transmits the virus could face up to ten years in prison according to the bill that was passed by parliament this week.
The international organization, Human Rights Watch has called the bill "deeply flawed" and together with other groups, called on Uganda's president Yoweri Museveni to revise the bill before he signs it into law. This could happen within the next 21 days. Maria Burnett, a researcher for Human Rights Watch explained her stance against the bill, saying that "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."
The most controversial parts of the bill, include clauses that will make it legal for doctors to reveal a person's HIV status. Additionally, both the act of unprotected sex by an HIV-positive individual and the intention of having unprotected sex have been made punishable.
Although the chairperson of the Ugandan Parliament Health Committee, Jovia Kamateka, admitted that these clauses may violate the rights of people living with HIV, she argued that the new HIV Prevention and Control Bill would protect many people against the virus and was long overdue. "We know there are many people, someone knows they are sick but says I will not die alone, goes, befriends some young girls," she told DW.
Women as a prime target
Another contentious part of the bill is the mandatory testing of pregnant women. This, says Dr Lydia Mungherera from the Ugandan non-governmental group, The AIDS Support Organization (TASO), will make women the prime targets of the bill. "This clause is taking us back centuries when all the progress we have made in fighting this pandemic is going to be ruled out. They are criminalizing people who are having consensual sex."
According to the Ugandan government, the bill is supposed to regulate the allocation of funds into HIV/AIDS research and treatment. It is also wants to address Uganda's dependency on foreign aid. In reaction to the calls by human rights groups to revise the bill, Uganda's Minister of Health, Dr Ruhakana Rugunda defended the bill saying: "It will be difficult to have a legislation that satisfies everybody. Their concerns will be taken into account, but all in all I would say that it is a positive legislation".
The bill has been debated in parliament since 2010. Both the AIDS Commission from the Ugandan Ministry of Health and the Joint UN Program on HIV/AIDS had in the past discouraged the bill. Uganda's president Museveni, previously came under heavy critique for passing a law which discriminates homosexuals living in the country.
For many years, Uganda was seen as a frontrunner in the fight against HIV/AIDS. From 1991 onwards, Uganda managed to halve its HIV prelavence rate within 15 years. According to Uganda's Health Ministry, an estimated 1.5 million Ugandans were living with HIV in 2012. The infection rate has once again been on the rise, with at least 140,000 new infections recorded annually.