Nearly five years ago, then Chinhoyi regional magistrate Mr Never Katiyo sentenced 39-year-old Nyengedzai Bheka to 15 years in prison for wilfully transmitting HIV to a 17-year-old pupil. In his ruling, Mr Katiyo said infection of that nature was tantamount to a death penalty on the girl since she was young.
The ensuing years, Bheka’s case became the basis for unending discourse in workshops, on social media and everywhere else, on wilful transmission of HIV and the effect of the law on about 1,5 million living with the disease in Zimbabwe.
While many felt the judgment was appropriate considering the “death penalty” that Bheka had inflicted on the pupil, others inferred that the nearly two million people living with HIV and Aids were now regarded as potential criminals.
It is against this background that the nation welcomes plans by the Government to repeal a legal provision that criminalises transmission of HIV or Aids to a partner.
While then there was a genuine concern to control the spread of HIV by criminalising those who transmited it to partners, the consequential effects were being felt by those living positively with the virus.
One important issue for sure is that the Government has proved that it has kept its antennae in touch with the ever changing dynamics around people living with HIV and Aids and those not, as an issue of great national importance. Decriminalisation of transmission of HIV is the way to go.
Though based on noble intent, criminalising HIV transmission has been working against Governments’ protracted efforts to reduce HIV transmission.
Many people living with HIV and Aids were now being discriminated against, driving them further away from HIV prevention, treatment, and care and support services.
It is documented that the HIV narrative is a gender issue with most women bearing the brunt of HIV infection either as living positively with the virus or as caregivers.
Criminalising HIV transmission hit women the hardest because they often are the first ones in the household to know their HIV status because of their proclivity for seeking gynaecological services. After discovering their positive status, women thereafter become vulnerable to blame and violence from their intimate partners and become subjects of ridicule as having infected their partners when they were the ones who might, in fact, have been infected by them.
In such cases, criminalising HIV transmission whittles away gains that Zimbabwe has achieved in reducing the rate of HIV infections.
Rather than look at punitive ways to control the spread of HIV and Aids, the Government should employ a coterie of measures to reduce and control the rate of infection.
These should include expansion of programmes that have impacted positively in reducing HIV transmission while protecting the rights of both of people living with HIV and those who are not.
Continuous provision of information on HIV and Aids increases access to voluntary testing and counselling should also be among the country’s benchmarks in controlling the spread of HIV.
Governments would also need to strengthen and enforce laws against rape, sexual assault and other forms of violence against women and children, who sadly continue to be victims of wilful transmission and other forms of abuse. Alignment of laws will improve the efficacy of criminal justice systems that will protect further violation and abuse of vulnerable groups such as women and children.
However, while the Government should be commended for its efforts in advocating for a stigma-free environment, it should descend heavily on individuals who deliberately and maliciously infect others. Such persons should be severely charged under the laws of the land to deter such wanton disregard for the law and violation of human rights.
Suffice to say this is a complex issue and the Government should be applauded for remaining in sync, following and monitoring closely the developments around this contentious issue. It is encouraging to note that the Government is with the people on this matter.