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Burden of HIV Disclosure Laws Fall on Women

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Glorius Kyarihunda was murdered by her husband at 25-years-old.

The man hacked his wife of 10 years to death with a machete in Western Uganda when she returned home to retrieve her belongings.

Days earlier, Glorius' husband blamed her for his positive HIV test.

According to the Ugandan branch of the International HIV/AIDS Alliance, Glorius was one of five women murdered in 2008 under similar circumstances. Thousands more suffered abuse or eviction. In a survey of just one district by ActionAid Uganda, 100 out of 465 women said they experienced domestic violence as a result of disclosing their status.

Disclosure is not only difficult, it's dangerous. Yet, just months after Glorius' death, Ugandan Parliament is debating a bill that gives a person six weeks after testing positive to tell their partner before the government does.

The N'djamena "model law" created a guideline for criminalizing the willful transmission of HIV. Adopted across West Africa, its attempts curb infection and empower victims of abuse or rape.

The law contains important measures criminalizing malicious and intentional transmission. But, these cases are rare. In practice, articles like the forced disclosure rule disproportionally criminalize women living in fear of abuse.

Due to antenatal testing, women tend to find out their HIV status before their husbands. This places the burden of disclosure on them and increases the risk of violence or abandonment. Leaving is rarely an option. Existing laws and tradition often deprive women of property and inheritance rights in divorce. Access to credit and salaried employment is also limited.

"Many women cannot disclose their status to their partners because they fear violent assault or being thrown out of the home," said Edwin Cameron, a Justice of the Supreme Court of Appeal of South Africa at the 2008 International AIDS Conference.

On top of this, the rules of predominantly male-dominated societies leave women unable to negotiate condom use or family planning. Many men, like Glorius' husband, hold their wives responsible for infection.

The problems don't stop at disclosure. In Togo, anyone who doesn't use a condom in "all risky sexual relations" is breaking the law while Guinea requires mandatory testing before marriage. In Zimbabwe, a woman was convicted for "deliberately infecting another person." Her lover has never tested positive for the virus.

In Sierra Leone, women can also be criminalized for exposing their infants to HIV.

"Any person who is and is aware of being infected with HIV or is carrying and is aware of carrying HIV antibodies shall not knowingly or recklessly place another person, and in the case of a pregnant women, the fetus, at risk of becoming infected with HIV," says Article 21 of the legislation.

Due to years of civil war, about 70 per cent of Sierra Leone's population is living below the poverty line. That means access to affordable ARV drugs through international aid is essential. But, coverage is remarkably low. A 2007 UN assessment found only 25 per cent of pregnant HIV-positive women and less than one per cent of exposed infants received treatment. Further, only 26 per cent of people have access to clean drinking water putting infants at risk of HIV through breast milk or deadly, waterborne diseases through formula.

"We must change the social circumstances that will empower those women to say no when they wish to and to insist on protection when they want to," said Cameron.

In the face of this epidemic, angry and fear can inspire drastic action. But, legislation that ignores the realities of gender inequality only worsens the problem by reinforcing the stigma associated with the disease. That's why our focus should be poverty, the domestic violence and the misinformation that causes infection.

"It is a virus," said Cameron. "Not a crime."