The Mauritian HIV and AIDS Act 2006 provides measures for the control and prevention of HIV by: making registered HIV testing facilities available; testing donated blood; providing counselling for people affected by HIV or AIDS; and providing a program of syringe and needle exchange.
It is possible to make a difference and to engage policy makers to enact laws based on sound human rights principles and approaches, and this example from Mauritius shows how.
Although Mauritius has a relatively low HIV prevalence the virus has spread mainly among people who use drugs. According to UNAIDS, exposure to non-sterile injecting equipment is the most important factor for HIV infection in Mauritius. Injecting drug use was the cause of the highest number of new HIV infections: 92% in 2005 and 85.2% in 2006.
As a result, an HIV bill was in the pipeline as the Minister of Justice and the Minister of Health were pressured by civil society, which wanted to introduce a Needle Exchange Programme. When it came to drafting the law, it became apparent that the bill would include a provision for the prosecution for the ‘wilful transmission of HIV’.
In response to this, the AIDS and Rights Alliance of Southern Africa (ARASA) and Prevention Information et Lutte Contre le SIDA (PILS) organized a workshop with civil society, parliamentarians, state law officials and others in Mauritius about human rights and the disadvantages of the criminalization of HIV transmission. They discussed the real impact of such laws on women and other vulnerable groups and why – despite the intention behind the law appearing good – it actually constitutes bad public policy.
ARASA assisted local NGOs with drafting submissions on the proposed laws that they can use to engage with Parliamentarians and Parliamentary sub-committees and to submit as formal submissions on the law. Local partners continued to lobby Parliament and as a result of this the bill was adjusted.
The Act was passed in December 2006. Key elements of the act include an emphasis on confidentiality and human rights, guaranteeing that people living with HIV have equal rights to employment and health care. It also makes it illegal to impose HIV testing as a pre-condition for employment or continued employment, and it includes penalties for HIV discrimination. It also includes specific details about harm reduction and needle exchange. In the period from December 2006 to March 2007 more than 2,000 (more than 12,000) syringes were exchanged.
However, there are challenges. The discrimination clauses in the law are under used and people living with HIV are not using them for fear of being identified.
According to Nicolas Ritter, the Director of PILS,
“No one is, for the moment, willing to go public while going to court.”
PILS is working with people living with HIV to help them know their rights and to feel empowered to realize them. While civil society still has some concerns about the Act and would like to see it improved further, the consultation and advocacy was able to ensure that the criminal prosecution of ‘wilful transmission’ and other particularly detrimental clauses (such as compulsory disclosure) were removed before the bill was passed.
Find out more
Visit the Prevention Information et Lutte Contre le SIDA (PILS) website.
Visit the AIDS and Rights Alliance of Southern Africa (ARASA) website.