HIV and women's rights in Uganda: why a new law would hurt women

Milly Katana, an HIV positive Ugandan activist and director of the International HIV/AIDS Alliance, tells Sylvia Rowley why criminalising the transmission of HIV would undo 25 years of hard work.
Sylvia Rowley
1 March 2009

Julius Tumwesigye from the western districts of Uganda was accused of hacking his wife to death with a machete last year after finding out she was HIV positive. The police said the 30 year-old man, who also had the virus, blamed his wife of 10 years for infecting him. He reportedly pounced on his wife Glorius one morning as she returned home with their two young children and killed her instantly.

"Last year alone there were five cases of women being murdered by their spouses once the men found out they were HIV positive" says Milly Katana, an HIV activist and director of the Ugandan branch of the International HIV/AIDS Alliance. According to Ms Katana it is mostly women who get the blame for bringing HIV into a
relationship, and as a result many suffer violence, ostracism and shame. Soon, they may also face jail.

As the annual Commission on the Status of Women approaches, where the progress of gender equality is examined, a law is being proposed in Uganda which activists say will put women's health at risk and worsen the inequalities they already face. The HIV and AIDS Prevention and Control Bill proposes to make it a criminal offence to intentionally transmit HIV to another person in Uganda. "For women living with HIV and our friends the Bill is a great concern" says Ms Katana. "It is very difficult to prove who transmitted HIV to whom, and whether it was intentional," she says.

"One of the concerns we have as women living with HIV and AIDS is that in most instances it is women who first learn that they are HIV positive, not men, because women are tested as part of ante-natal care when they are expecting. In Uganda we do not have a way to establish when a person was infected. We are afraid that the courts will take the date of testing as the date of infection and accuse the woman of having brought HIV to the couple," says Ms Katana.

"Women are already often held responsible for their husband's illness, despite the fact that they have limited control over when and how to have sex. As well as the murders I have mentioned it is very common for women to be shunned by their communities: if a man dies of an HIV related illness his family will throw his wife out of the house. Under this bill, if I am a woman with HIV and I tell my husband, he may take me to court."

With the threat of life imprisonment added to existing fears of being hurt or shunned, more women will chose simply not to tell anyone they have HIV, says Ms Katana. "If a woman goes to ante-natal care and finds out she is HIV positive, she might keep quiet about it and pretend everything is ok. She may go on to have the baby naturally, to breastfeed and not take precautions during sex," says Ms Katana. "Because if a woman doesn't breastfeed, the whole village including her husband and mother in law will know she is HIV positive." Women already hide their status in many cases because of the stigma of having HIV, but this will happen even more if women fear jail.

If women keep their HIV diagnosis secret, it is dangerous for everyone involved. The women will not get antiretroviral drugs that can improve and lengthen their lives. Children are more likely to get HIV from their mothers if their mother does not take precautions such as such as avoiding breastfeeding and having a caesarean section. Male partners are more likely to contract HIV (if they are not already HIV positive) if a woman is too afraid to tell him her status and use condoms. So the law may in effect make the transmission of HIV more, not less, likely. "It threatens to undo the work we have done for the past 25 years" Ms Katana says.

Uganda is deliberating this bill because it is no longer the beacon of good practice it once was. While it dramatically reduced HIV rates in the 1990s, Uganda is now seeing an increase in HIV even among traditionally low-risk groups such as married couples. "This bill is being put forward because we are desperate as a country" says Ms Katana. "We are experiencing a resurgence of HIV and we are all in a state of panic. Parliament thinks the law is a magic bullet."

Ms Katana says that although she is against the bill in its current form, a law criminalising the transmission of HIV could be useful in some circumstances. "There are many cases of sexual violence cropping up in this country," she says. "In these instances the proposed law would mean a rapist would get a much longer sentence if he was found to have passed on HIV to his victim. This would be good as it would send out a message that this is a very serious crime."

"But as if the law was passed as it is, it would disproportionately threaten women. Making an exemption for cases where HIV was transmitted through consensual sex between adults might be a solution," she says.

Ms Katana and her fellow campaigners at organisations such as the National Forum for People Living with HIV/AIDS in Uganda are trying to stop the bill being passed in its current form. "We are trying to make communities aware of the proposed law," says Ms Katana, "and we are also engaging directly with MPs and putting the message out on radio and in newspapers."

The proposed law would only ratchet up the inequalities faced by women and put more Ugandans at risk of HIV, Ms Katana says. "Women are already blamed when a man gets HIV and many are too afraid to admit they are HIV positive," she says. "The law would only make this worse. What we need is bold actions on the part of everybody to educate and empower women."

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