Criminalizing HIV

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Image by Flickr user: hdptcar / Creative Commons

In Burundi, a willful transmitter of HIV can be tried for murder. In Benin, failure to disclose one’s health status to a sexual partner, regardless of whether a virus is actually transmitted, is illegal. In Togo, it’s unlawful for anyone–regardless of HIV status–to have sex without a condom.

These laws, which are increasingly common in Africa, are intended to stem the spread of HIV, writes social justice blogger Julie Turkewitz in The Indypendent(Aug. 1-30, 2011), but the legislation has the opposite effect–it further stigmatizes carriers and discourages testing. This sort of social engineering also violates human rights, writes Turkewitz: “In countries where HIV-positive status can subject a person to social isolation, exile, physical abuse, or death, this provision has dangerous implications.” It’s particularly perilous for disempowered women, who cannot always insist on condom use, are too often the victims of rape, and could be thrown out of their home for having HIV.

Africa’s HIV criminalization laws can be traced back to a three-day summit held in 2004 by the U.S.-based charity FHI 360 (formerly Family Health International), after which 14 nations adopted the counter­productive laws. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which originally tasked the charity with creating a program to reduce Africa’s HIV/AIDS pandemic, today condemns the knee-jerk laws. “Stigma and discrimination are really a driver of this epidemic,” says USAID official Robert Clay. “We need to make sure that we don’t have those types of laws on the books.”

Have something to say? Send a letter to This article first appeared in the January-February 2012 issue of Utne Reader.

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