Uganda Criminalizes HIV Transmission, Mandates Testing

Uganda's parliament approved a bill that imposes 10-year jail sentences for the 'willful and intentional' transmission of HIV.

BY Sunnivie Brydum

May 16 2014 5:24 AM ET

On Tuesday, Uganda's parliament unanimously passed legislation that will not only criminalize HIV transmission in the East African country, but also mandates HIV testing for pregnant women and their partners, and allows doctors to disclose a patient's status without their consent. 

Ironically titled the "HIV Prevention and Management Bill," the legislation, first drafted in 2008, imposes 10-year jail sentences and fines of up to five million Ugandan shillings — just under $2,000 USD — for anyone who transmits HIV in a "willful and intentional" manner, according to news agency Inter Press Service.

The bill also includes clauses that require testing of pregnant women, and compel doctors to disclose a patient's HIV status without their consent. If signed into law, the bill would also make having unprotected sex as an HIV-positive person — or even the intent to do so — punishable with jail time.

IPS reports that after several years of decreasing rates of new HIV infections, Uganda's rates have been rising steadily since 2011. Several reports expressed concern that the legislation, if signed into law by President Yoweri Museveni, could likely be used to further repress and criminalize women, who face a much higher rate of infection in Uganda than do men. 

HIV rates continue to rise in Uganda, and while lawmakers positioned the bill as an attempt to stem that increase, HIV activists and health care organizations say that it's likely to have the opposite effect. As demonstrated in several countries throughout the world, HIV criminalization laws actually discourage people from getting tested, because if someone knows their status and engages in risky behavior, they can be accused of violating the law against "willful transmission." 

Human rights activists have condemned the bill as discriminatory, and Human Rights Watch called it "deeply flawed," noting that it is "based on approaches that have been condemned by international health agencies as ineffective and violating the rights of people living with AIDS."

Voice of America reports that lawmakers believe people with HIV who knowingly transmit the virus to others are dangerous to the public.

"Every punishment should be given because this person is aware that he or she is infected, and goes ahead intentionally to transmit to another person," member of Parliament Peter Aleper told a local television network last week. "That's a very dangerous person that can easily confuse the whole community and finish people."

Despite international outcry and calls for president Museveni to veto the bill, a Ugandan doctor and member of Parliament, told IPS that the President is likely to sign the bill, just as he did the Anti-Homosexuality Act, which criminalized homosexuality and imposed lifetime prison sentences on anyone having repeated consensual sex with someone of the same sex, or with someone who is HIV-positive. The Anti-Homosexuality Act has already prompted state police to launch an undercover investigation of an HIV and AIDS advocacy group, ultimately raiding the U.S.-funded program and arresting clinicians, claiming they were "recruiting" men into homosexuality by providing them with condoms, lube, and information on safer sex.

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