Uganda Criminalises HIV Transmission

Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni signed legislation this week criminalising the transmission of HIV, a measure that allows doctors to violate confidentiality and disclose their patients’ HIV status without consent and calls for mandatory testing for pregnant women and their partners in violation of their human rights.

While the “HIV Prevention and AIDS Control Bill” was created in an effort to curb the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the country, the law as written poses serious human rights violations that infringe on Ugandans’ right to privacy and right to be free from discrimination.

The law calls for a sentencing of up to 5 years for individuals found guilty of transmitting HIV. Furthermore, the bill singles out women in the country, subjecting survivors of sexual assault and pregnant women to routine HIV blood testing—a provision that fosters discrimination in the health care system, deepens the stigma of HIV and AIDS among those groups, and discourages women from seeking essential health care.

“No one should ever fear discrimination or imprisonment when trying to access essential medical care in her or his country—regardless of HIV status or other health needs,” said Evelyne Opondo, regional director for Africa at the Centre for Reproductive Rights.

“Rather than passing a measure that effectively address the very real challenges that exist in curbing the spread and treatment of HIV and AIDS, this law inflicts punishment, shame, and fear on men and women in Uganda, including pregnant women who desperately need and deserve quality maternal health care.”

Under this new law, medical and health practitioners are allowed to disclose or release HIV test results without a patient’s consent.

Non-consensual disclosure of HIV status places women at risk of physical, sexual, and psychological abuse. In 2008 alone, five women in Uganda were murdered by their husbands after the men learned about their wives’ HIV-positive status.

Cases of discrimination against pregnant women living with HIV have occurred in many parts of the world, including Uganda and Namibia where 15 women who were sterilized without their consent brought a complaint against the government.

In 2009, the Centre for Reproductive Rights and Vivo Positivo brought a case against Chile before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on behalf of F.S, a Chilean woman living with HIV who at age 20 was sterilized during delivery without her knowledge or consent. Her case is still pending before the commission.

In November 2010, the Centre and the Uganda Association of Women Lawyers submitted a joint letter to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women raising concerns over the negative impact the bill would have on women’s reproductive rights.

The Centre has worked extensively in Uganda on the human rights implications of lack of access to legal abortion and modern contraceptives. In November 2013, the Centre, the International Women’s Human Rights Clinic and the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown Law released a joint report entitled The Stakes Are High: The Tragic Impact of Unsafe Abortion and Inadequate Access to Contraception in Uganda.

The report documents personal stories of women impacted by the widespread and false impression that abortion is illegal in all circumstances in Uganda— when in fact it is permitted for women with life-threatening conditions and victims of sexual assault.

In 2012, the Centre launched its first research report on Uganda’s laws and policies on termination of pregnancy. The report found that the laws and policies are more expansive than most believe, and Uganda has ample opportunity to increase access to safe abortion services.