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Civil society wants HIV Bill dropped

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SOME Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) have called on Parliament to drop the HIV and Aids Prevention and Management Bill which Minister of Health Peter Kumpalume presented on Wednesday, saying the Bill adopts a criminal law and coercive approach to HIV which violate human rights.

They threatened that if the Bill is passed in its current form, the CSOs will have no option but to challenge the constitutionality of these provisions in the constitutional court as soon as the bill is passed.

Among other things, the Bill makes a person liable to 21 years imprisonment for wilfully infecting another person and 14 years imprisonment for negligently infecting a person with the virus.

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The other section prohibits testing before recruitment despite allowing the Malawi Defence Force, Malawi Police Service and the Immigration Department to assess the physical fitness of recruits.

The presented Bill also allows the testing of a domestic worker before employment although it makes it a criminal offence to fire an employee on the grounds that he or she is living or is perceived to be living with HIV and Aids.

The CSOs—including the Centre for the Development of People (Cedep), the Centre for Human Rights Education, Advice and Assistance (Chreaa), the Mango Key Populations NGO Network and Youth Watch Society (Yowso) — also said the Bill will have a harmful impact on the national response to HIV and Aids.

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“Malawi has made great strides in HIV treatment and prevention over the years. Research shows that there are serious gaps but this Bill does not offer an approach that will fill these gaps. The Bill does not actually address the context of HIV in 2017,” said Muteyu Banda of Yowso.

Mango Executive Director, MacDonald Sembereka, said the coercive approach of the Bill will be harmful to HIV treatment and prevention. “We have learnt from over two decades of the HIV epidemic – and the empirical evidence is there – that coercive and criminalising approaches do not work in HIV [prevention]. They drive vulnerable and key populations away, they make adhering to treatment and prevention strategies hard,” Sembereka said.

Chreaa Executive Director, Victor Mhango, said the proposed law takes money away from the ailing criminal justice system. “To enforce the Bill’s criminallaw approach, government will have to invest in prosecution and prisons. The criminal justice system and prisons are overburdened already – we should be thinking of ways to decongest prisons to solve social problems without criminalising people,” Mhango said.

Cedep Executive Director, Gift Trapence, described the Bill as unconstitutional. “This Bill violates peoples’ human rights in a way that is not justifiable under the Malawi Constitution. It is likely to result in a lot of unnecessary and expensive litigation.

A criminal law approach inappropriately shifts our attention from government’s responsibilities to improve health systems and protect vulnerable populations, to placing the burden on people living with HIV and people who are most vulnerable to HIV,” Trapence said.

But chairperson of the HIV and Aids Committee of Parliament, Deus Gumba, said he is not in agreement with the idea to shelve the Bill.

Gumba said the country has spent years waiting for the Bill and the best approach to take is for the CSOs to actively take part in ongoing consultations. He said the minister referred the Bill to relevant committees as

part of the consultation process. “If they have any suggestions they should come forward and raise such issues with the committee. We are even meeting with stakeholders in Salima on Sunday [today] for consultations.

We invite these CSOs to be there and take part in these consultations,” Gumba said. The Malawi Law Commission developed the Bill in 2008 to provide a framework for effective regulation of the prevention and management of HIV and Aids in the country.

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