Civil society groups have urged President Museveni not to endorse the HIV/Aids Prevention and Control Bill, which criminalises intentional transmission of the disease. In their May 21 petition, Uganda Network on Law, Ethics and HIV/AIDS (UGANET), Global Network for People Living with HIV, and International Treatment Preparedness Coalition, asked the president to show leadership by refusing to assent to the legislation.
"Uganda has taken a giant leap backwards in the struggle against HIV," Dr Noreen Kaleeba, founding director of The Aids Support Organisation (Taso), told journalists last week.
"This bill has weakened Uganda's HIV prevention efforts and we are concerned that the law will have a negative impact on our historical role as a country leading the African continent and the world in creating innovative response to fighting HIV," she added.
Passed by parliament on May 13, the bill is awaiting the presidential seal of approval before it becomes law. However, activists believe they can stand in its way by appealing to the president. Instead of the new bill, the activists prefer effective enforcement of existing criminal laws or public health regulations where there is clear evidence of wilful transmission of HIV.
The Observer has learnt that State House acknowledged receipt of their letter on May 23.
"While we commend your Excellency and government for showing political leadership in attempting to reduce the rates of HIV and increasing domestic funding for HIV, we are concerned by the many problematic provisions in this bill, which along with the recently-enacted Anti-Homosexuality Act will negate the gains made by Uganda over the past three decades," reads the letter in part.
The legislation slaps a five-year jail term on anyone found guilty of wilful or attempted transmission of HIV/Aids. The bill also suggests mandatory testing for all pregnant women, as well as allowing health workers to reveal the status of an HIV-positive person to anyone deemed at risk of contracting the virus from the patient.
Dorah Kiconco, executive director of UGANET, said people who are transmitting the virus the most are those who don't know their HIV status; 67 per cent of Ugandans don't know their status.
"So, are they going to test now because there is a law? If a pregnant woman is tested and her husband refuses; he is at liberty to say that the woman has infected me. Women will stop testing because it's likely that more women will be charged and more people will not disclose to their partners when they know their status," Kiconco reasoned.
The petition argues that not only do some of the bill's provisions violate the rights to equality, autonomy, bodily integrity and privacy; they also go against evidence-based effective approaches to HIV. Implementation of these provisions, activists believe, increases the risk of escalation in the number of new infections, which over the past five years have increased from 6.4 per cent to 7.3 per cent.
"The implementation of the provisions of this act not only places a heavy burden on the already burdened state, but will also place an onerous task on Uganda's judiciary, which will be obliged to adjudicate these matters," the letter states.
Criminalising HIV transmission, the activists maintain, perpetuates stigmatisation and prevents people from testing to know their HIV sero status as well as seek treatment.
The activists want Museveni to facilitate dialogue between MPs and people living with HIV, researchers, civil society organisations and other stakeholders.
Kaleeba, one of the petitioners and one of Uganda's greatest anti-Aids icons, said:
"As a woman who was widowed by Aids, and who has been part of the process, legislators face a challenge of enacting a good bill which would be progressive if it did not have the criminalisation clause. If Museveni signs the bill in its current form, with the criminalisation clauses, it will constitute the largest step taken backwards in the fight against HIV. Aids is a manageable chronic disease, it is not the same disease which took my husband within a year."