4 December 2009

East Africa: Move Towards Common HIV/Aids Law

Arusha — All HIV-positive east Africans could soon access free anti-retroviral treatment even as they move freely from country to country, if a new proposed law comes into effect.

The East African Community (EAC) is currently developing a law to guide the region's response to HIV/AIDS.

This comes as the regional block moves towards an integration process that would see more citizens cross the boarders in the five states of Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi, and Rwanda.

"With the signing of the protocol on customs union that will enable free movement of persons, you are actually going to see free movement of the virus because people will be interacting more easily as they transact business. The effect of that is that HIV must be seen regionally," said Catherine Mumma, a Kenyan Human Rights Lawyer, who works with consultancy group Africa Vision Integrated Strategies. She led a consultation in the EAC states before the drafting of the new proposed law.

Based upon the consultations, the proposed law aims to provide joint treatment policies for people in the region while they move freely across the borders.

"One other thing is that east Africans would want a law that would enable them to access services anywhere they go in east Africa. So that if you were in Nairobi and you were on ARVs and you only brought two days ARVs and Kenya Airways went on strike, you should be able on the third day to walk into a treatment centre and get treated."

The law will allow for a common stance on HIV/AIDS, which aims to be non-discriminatory. Currently some countries in the region criminalise the treatment of HIV-positive sex workers and gay men.

The presidents of the five member states agreed in November to commence the East Africa common market protocol, which beings in early in 2010. It will allow for the free movement of labour and trade across borders, similar to the Southern African Development Community trade agreement.

Lucy Ng'ang'a, the executive director for the Eastern African National Networks of AIDS Service Organisations (EANNASO) said the proposed law will take on the good parts of the existing laws in the region but also tackle some of the silent issues and make better the areas that are controversial.

For example, Kenya has as a law providing for the free treatment and counselling for HIV-positive people.

One of the controversial areas is the criminalisation of the transmission of HIV/AIDS being suggested by countries like Uganda.

Another controversial area is that in the Penal Codes of Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania prostitutes and gay men, who are considered high risk in HIV/AIDS transmission, are not allowed access to treatment.

Member states like Kenya, Tanzania and Burundi already have laws on HIV/AIDS.

Uganda's law, the HIV/AIDS Control Bill 2009, was tabled before Parliament in 2008 as a Private Member's Bill. It has already caused a public outcry because of a clause relating to the criminalisation of HIV transmission between adults.

EANNASO contracted consultancy group Africa Vision Integrated Strategies to study the existing HIV laws within the region and advise on a draft bill for an East African Law on HIV.

The report by the Kenyan-registered consultancy was presented at a regional consultative meeting held between December 3rd and 4th, 2009.

Participants at the meeting in Arusha voiced concern at provisions in the member states laws relating to the rights of People Living With HIV/AIDS and criminalisation of HIV transmission.

Mumma told IPS that most people consulted felt that the issue of wilful transmission of HIV/AIDS should be punishable, but not in the context of the HIV law. It should be dealt with separately because if it was included in the HIV law, it will stigmatise people who may use this law to seek protection and treatment, the East Africa Law Society said.

"HIV should be seen as any other diseases including hepatitis B. And it would better for it to be dealt with in the context of the penal code even if it meant drafting another clause in the penal code," Mumma said.

Sarah Bonaya, a Kenyan Representative at East African Legislative Assembly and also a member of the General Purposes Committee in the parliament, said she was sure that her colleagues in the assembly would support the Bill which may be tabled as a Private Member's Bill to the East African Assembly.

She was happy that consultations had gone on through the five states to ensure a harmonised law that would address some of the negative provisions within each member state law that would affect management of HIV/AIDS as a region.

The new proposed law on HIV/AIDS would be the second in Africa after the SADC HIV law adapted in November 2008. The SADC law provides a comprehensive framework for harmonisation of HIV and human rights in southern Africa.

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