BURUNDI: Compulsory HIV testing before marriage still a sore point

The Roman Catholic Church's policy in Burundi that all couples intending to marry be tested for HIV is raising the hackles of some HIV-positive people, who claim that the measure promotes stigma.

"It is a breach of human rights to force someone to get tested; testing should always be voluntary," said Jeanne Gapiya Niyonzima, a leading AIDS activist in Burundi and the first person in the country to publicly declare her HIV status. "It is good that the church is supporting testing, but this is the wrong way to do it."

In March this year, the Catholic Church in Burundi released a booklet that made the HIV testing policy official.

"We do not require that the couple share their status with us, merely that they get tested and are aware of each other's status," said Father Antoine Sabushatse, spokesman for the Diocese of Bujumbura, the capital city.

He said mandatory testing started in 1989 in the southern province of Bururi, where the Church noticed that many returning soldiers living with the virus married local girls without disclosing their status and passed the virus on to them; the Bishop of the Diocese then began insisting on HIV tests before marriage, a policy that has since spread across the country.

"If there is no openness between a couple; if one hides their HIV status, then the sacrament of marriage is invalid," Sabushatse said.

Gapiya pointed out that priests, however well-intentioned, were not trained HIV counsellors and were unqualified to provide those services. She added that in this day and age, where the vast majority of couples have sexual relations before they get married, testing immediately before marriage was hardly the most effective HIV prevention tool.

"Anyone can pay a crooked doctor for a certificate saying they are HIV-negative; that's easy, and it's done," she said. "These days, people in the community who choose not to get married in church are immediately suspected of being HIV-positive - it is a stigmatising policy."

Sabushatse acknowledged that there had been incidents where one of the parties had presented falsified documents, but said the Church recommended a couple to a doctor known to be trustworthy, who would then have to confirm to the local Catholic priest that the couple had been tested and knew each other's results.

Even if one or both parties were found to be HIV-positive, the Church would still marry them - it was an issue of knowledge and openness, rather than judgment, he added.

Despite the protests, Sabushatse said the response to the testing requirement had been favourable: "Very few people refuse the testing; they have seen a lot of people around them dying and they do not want to take any risks."


Theme (s): Stigma/Human Rights/Law - PlusNews,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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