Local bylaws risk stigmatizing HIV patients

Local bylaws risk stigmatizing HIV patients

INDONESIA - The HIV/AIDS Research Center of Atmajaya University has released a study arguing that HIV patients may be stigmatised by local ordinances requiring them to admit their health status to their partners.

The bylaws stipulate that hiding HIV status from partners or spouses can be categorized as a crime, as such concealment is considered to put others' health at risk.

The centre said that such statutes exacerbated the stigma suffered by people living with HIV/AIDS.

"New HIV infections continue to be detected, meaning that HIV prevention [through the bylaws] has not been effective," centre researcher Siradj Okta said on Thursday in a seminar held to discuss the study.

The regulations, the centre said, would also discourage people from taking HIV tests for fear that they would be forced to confess their status if they were diagnosed as HIV-positive.

"According to criminal law theory, a person is unlikely to do something if it has legal consequences," Siradj told The Jakarta Post on the sidelines of the seminar.

Siradj further warned that the bylaws could in fact lead to increased incidence of HIV infections, which they were intended to reduce.

If people were discouraged from taking HIV tests, she argued, they would not realise if they were HIV-positive, increasing the likelihood of their transmitting the virus.

"Criminalizing those who hide their HIV-positive status is meant to prevent transmission of the virus. However, the HIV virus can be transferred from [many sources]. It is not criminalization that prevents HIV transmission but awareness among infected people," she said, calling for the bylaws to be scrapped in favour of more HIV-awareness campaigns.

"The problem is that the majority of presumed HIV-positive people are not aware that they are HIV-positive […] the HIV virus is mostly transmitted by people who are not aware of their HIV status," Siradj added.

According to data the centre gathered from the Health Ministry between 2012 and 2013, 80 per cent of presumed HIV-positive people are unaware of their status.

The study also showed that the bylaws might also worsen the stigma attached to HIV sufferers by criminalizing them for failing to confess their status.

"HIV-positive people could be seen as criminals because of the statute. They are not criminals, they are victims," Sirajd said.

He also said that the responsibility for HIV prevention must not rest solely with HIV sufferers.

"Precautionary measures are everyone's responsibility. I would recommend the bylaws be reviewed. It's better to continue with policies that have been proved to be effective," he said.

Sirajd, however, admitted that his research was not ground-evidence-based as most research is. He conducted his research through secondary literature after failing to find a single instance of prosecution under the HIV statute. .

He suggested future studies be conducted based on facts on the ground, although he said it would be difficult to find cases given the difficulty of upholding the bylaws.

Simplexius Asa, a human rights and HIV activist, concurred with Sirajd, saying that there were currently dozens of similar bylaws in force in local administrations in 34 provinces in Indonesia.

Since the first bylaw was issued in the early 2000s, Simplexius said, he had only found one case, in Papua, of the bylaws being upheld..

"It is very hard to uphold the bylaws because besides the local administrations' lack of professional judges, some accusations in HIV cases are too complicated to be proven," Simplexius said, adding that he agreed that the bylaws should be reviewed.

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