In-depth: Crime and punishment: Criminalisation and HIV
CAMEROON: Whose responsibility is HIV transmission?
"This should not take away responsibility from the partner, as they are responsible for protecting themselves" (file photo)
YAOUNDÉ, 26 November 2008 (PlusNews) - When newspapers in Cameroon carried the story of a local businessman who allegedly had infected young girls with the HI virus, the calls to criminalise HIV transmission grew louder and the debate became more heated.
The focus of discussions was a draft bill drawn up in 2002 that proposed life imprisonment for anyone having unprotected sex when they knew they were positive; if the sexual act did not transmit HIV, the punishment would be five years' imprisonment and a fine of up to one million CFA francs (US$1,900).
The bill has yet to be debated in parliament, but the calls for it to be passed into law are growing.
Some AIDS activists condemned the bill when it was first proposed, and still maintain that it could cause more harm than good.
"We were strongly opposed to the idea of penalising the wilful transmission of HIV, particularly due to the difficult issue of proving that an act was intentional or voluntary," Jean Marie Talom, coordinator of Reseau Ethique Droit et Sida (REDS), a network of ethics, rights and HIV/AIDS organisations, told IRIN/PlusNews.
"It [also] takes away responsibility from people who are HIV negative. A law of this kind could only have a very limited effect and could not single-handedly contain the AIDS pandemic in our country."
Critics of the proposed law also fear that it would worsen the widespread stigma and discrimination against HIV-positive people. "Stigmatisation of people with HIV is still very strong and we don't need to add to this by criminalising HIV transmission," said Emmanuelle Privat, deputy head of mission of the international medical charity, Médecins Sans Frontières, in Cameroon.
Critics of the bill believe there is a risk that it will diminish the responsibility of HIV-negative people. "The person who is infected has the duty to protect their partner and encourage them to be tested, but this should not take away responsibility from the partner, as they are responsible for protecting themselves," said Lucie Zambou, president of the Cameroon network of organisations of people living with HIV/AIDS, RECAP+.
She acknowledged that many women were financially dependent or often did not have the power to negotiate safer sex, so "it is extremely hard to talk about shared responsibility."
Health officials support the legislation and see it as a form of protection for HIV negative people that could also limit the spread of the disease.
"We cannot leave such acts unpunished, as they go against efforts undertaken to limit the spread of AIDS," said Carno Tchuani, head of the planning, monitoring and evaluation unit at the national committee to combat AIDS (CNLS) in the Littoral province, but admitted that the sexual transmission of HIV would be very difficult to prove.
The authorities are not alone in supporting the bill. According to Talom, when REDS launched their advocacy campaign against the bill, "to our great surprise, the majority of the civil society organisations, including those for people living with HIV/AIDS, supported the idea of penalising wilful HIV contamination."
Civil society organisations have met on a number of occasions since 2002 to reach a consensus and put together a counterproposal. "Some of the things we have suggested include reducing the sentence, introducing the idea of joint responsibility, and changing the name of the preliminary bill to show that it also relates to the rights and duties of HIV-negative people and not only those living with HIV/AIDS," said Talom.
He noted that a legal void existed in terms of HIV/AIDS, and mentioned the example of a woman who was sentenced to death in 2004 for knowingly transmitting HIV by the court in Nkongsamba, a town about 100km from Douala, Cameroon's main port city. "The judge took advantage of the legal void to deliver an emotional verdict," commented Talom.