Back in the 1990s, Uganda was seen as a success story in the fight against the AIDS epidemic. HIV infection rates were falling. The country had developed strong, community based programs that provided support to those who became ill. They fought stigma and emphasized pragmatic – not ideological – approaches to preventing HIV infection.
Now, with the recent signing into law of the HIV Prevention and Control Act by President Museveni, Uganda is looking more now like a model of how not to fight HIV.
The new law punishes intentional transmission and attempted transmission of HIV with prison sentences of up to 10 years. It permits mandatory testing of pregnant women, their partners, and victims of sexual violence, and enables courts to order the release of individuals’ HIV status without their consent. This would mean that women may be tested and their HIV status revealed against their will, exposing them to potential physical violence from partners who fear or blame them for exposure to the disease.
In contrast to many other countries in East and Southern Africa and around the world, Uganda’s HIV epidemic appears to be getting worse. The Uganda AIDS Commission admits that Uganda continues to experience a high rate of new HIV infection, despite millions of donor dollars.
This law is not going to help. Not only are the law’s provisions contrary to well-established international best practices in the HIV response, such as protecting the confidentiality of individuals tested and ensuring their consent to be tested, such punitive measures are well documented to drive people away from services and testing, fueling fear and further discrimination against those living with HIV. Applying Invoking criminal law also fails to address the economic, social, and political inequalities that are the origin of women’s disproportionate vulnerability to HIV infection.
Uganda has no capacity to determine who infected whom, so prosecutions will be nearly impossible. Most likely, the law will only be used for political witch hunts to tarnish the names of government critics. At the same time, many will likely no longer seek testing because not knowing your status is an effective defense against prosecution for intentional transmission of HIV.
For many years, Uganda’s health activists had hoped for a law that would protect those living with HIV from discrimination. But as the bill took shape in 2009, it became clear that parliamentarians sought a blunt tool to look tough on HIV without any regard for the evidence-based successful strategies to fight the infection. This short-sighted political pandering to those who are ignorant about how to address HIV could be devastating.
Efforts to fight the law will now shift towards a constitutional challenge and pushing legislators to amend its discriminatory provisions. Amending this law and putting in place real measures to protect against discrimination of those living with HIV is the best way to start reducing the number of new infections and get Uganda back on the right track.