Huge divide over Uganda's HIV prevention bill

A woman gets tested for HIV in Uganda. A new bill which criminalizes HIV transmission in the country will only discourage people from being tested for HIV, according to HIV and AIDS experts. Photo by: Sokomoto Photography / International AIDS Vaccine Initiative / CC BY-NC-ND

Civil society groups campaigning against Uganda’s HIV bill are struggling to convince stakeholders to join their call for President Yoweri Museveni to reject the legislation.

In a bid to strengthen its case, the Uganda Network on Law Ethics & HIV AIDS, a coalition of organizations and individuals focused on informing policy toward HIV and AIDS response in the African country, is hoping to gather the support of the country's health providers when they meet Friday (May 30). It has already written a letter to the president and is lobbying the Office of the First Lady to come out strongly against the bill, according to Nanjeho Dianah, senior advocacy officer and communications consultant at UGANET.

The coalition has been educating Ugandans on the dangers such a bill could have to the country’s campaign to push down the number of HIV incidence, which has been rising in recent years. In any other country with similar legislation, the bill will just drive people underground instead of testing for HIV, thereby making it harder to reduce transmissions and eradicate the disease, HIV and AIDS experts told Devex last week..

But Dianah concedes it is tough explaining this to people who have seen their loved ones die of illnesses related to HIV.

“People are still very emotional about HIV, and they still treat it with a lot of fear and stigma. So in many cases they make a judgment on anything, including the legislators,” she told Devex.

Dianah cited a recent case in Uganda involving a nurse living with HIV as an example. The nurse, Rosemary Namubiru, was tried and convicted for negligence at the hospital where she was working after putting an infant at risk of HIV. According to reports, she injected the baby with the same needle that pricked her, but the nurse claimed throughout her trial it was an accident. Many in Uganda think though that she was trying to deliberately infect the child with HIV.

It’s important that people set aside their emotions when dealing with the HIV legislation, Dianah argued.

“People will infect others with HIV even if there is a law, but the law doesn’t necessarily mean that everything is going bad,” she added. “There are good people who are not trying to infect anybody with any disease.”

The bill has sparked a huge debate among Devex readers. Some expressed support for the bill, comparing intentional transmission of HIV to recklessly shooting someone or rape. One described it as “effectively manslaughter,” and another said a sentence of five to 10 years is too short compared with the "lasting harm" convicted individuals inflict on their victims.

But there are those who remain skeptical that a law could change people’s behavior and prevent those living with HIV from infecting another individual just because they may be sent to prison. They underscored the importance of lawmakers acting on available research, which supports experts’ assertion that punitive laws against HIV don't help the fight against the disease.

One reader argued that advocacy groups should try tapping leading advertising or public relations agencies for their campaigns to break down stigma and discrimination.

What do you think? Could this suggestion help the fight against HIV and AIDS in Uganda and elsewhere instead of introducing punitive laws? How can advocacy groups convince governments to look into available research on the best ways to tackle the disease? Let’s continue the conversation. Please leave a comment below or join our LinkedIn discussion.

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About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.

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