ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, August 26, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 13

AIDS “Remove the criminality, erase the stigma”

These are the strident calls that came to the fore at the 8th International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific, just concluded in Colombo....

By Kumudini Hettiarachchi. Pix by J. Weerasekera.

The colourful hoardings have been taken down. The hustle and bustle at the stately BMICH with more than 2,000 men and women from 60 countries gathering there to discuss the all-important topic of HIV and AIDS is over. As Colombo settles back into its routine, the messages flowing out of the 8th International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific are too numerous to deal with in one go. A few strident calls, however, come to the fore.

Justice Cameron

“I am an un-arrested criminal in Colombo,” says Justice Edwin Cameron from South Africa, expressing regret over Section 365 of Sri Lanka’s Criminal Procedure Code, which criminalizes homosexuality.

Justice Cameron who sits in the Supreme Court of Appeal in South Africa and openly calls himself gay and HIV Positive stresses that the law must play a proper role in the HIV epidemic. “But this law (Section 365) is still an instrument of irrationality and prejudice.”
Before being appointed to the Supreme Court of Appeal, this dynamic speaker had been in the long battle, side by side with Nelson Mandela, against apartheid as a human rights lawyer.

Drawing parallels between the Roman-Dutch Law, a legacy of colonialism, both in South Africa and Sri Lanka, he explains that the South African Constitution, however, prohibits discrimination against homosexuals.

“It is irrational and odious for the law to be taken into the bedroom of consenting adults,” says Justice Cameron who was diagnosed with HIV in 1986 and disclosed his status in 1999, making an impassioned plea to Sri Lanka’s law makers to change it. Laws which also make commercial sex work illegal, not only in Sri Lanka but also in South Africa, make it more difficult to deal with HIV prevention, he explains.

When queried on the argument that such issues go against “our religion and culture”, Justice Cameron stressed that Section 365 is a British import and not an artifact of Sri Lankan culture. “We are talking about criminal law and not something introduced through culture.”

With regard to religion, he points out that just as people being allowed to follow their religions such as Christianity, Hinduism and Islam does not denigrate Buddhism, decriminalization would not in any way affect the practice of any religion.

What of stigma and discrimination?

When he declared that he was HIV Positive, according to Justice Cameron, there was a great deal of love and affirmation for him but he concedes that in some communities there is stigma and discrimination, especially against women in his own country. “Just last month two lesbians were murdered in Soweto and South Africa too has a long way to go in fulfilling our constitutional promises,” he added.

Stigma and discrimination in all their hues and gender-based violence are what Noerine Kaleeba of Uganda came out very strongly against…..and she should know.

Noerine Kaleeba.

Her husband was diagnosed with HIV way back in June 1986 while in the United Kingdom. She was back home in Kampala running the School of Physiotherapy as its principal. “For me, at that time HIV was a disease only white gay men could get and that too in places far away like San Francisco. We were happily married. How could my Christopher have got it?”

In her “foolishness and ignorance” she told her colleagues about her husband being HIV Positive. Her husband yearned to come back to Uganda, not wanting to be away from his four little girls and his wife. “In England he was treated with such tender, loving care.” Home was a different story. “My own colleagues would not touch him and one day, I myself had to open up his foot to insert a canula.”

Her husband was dead in January 1987. It is still like yesterday and she recalls the date without thinking: “January 23.” HIV ravages your body, devastates your family and has a ripple effect all around you, she says, adding that though HIV is older than 25 years, stigma and discrimination is rampant in many societies. “I don’t tell people how Christopher got HIV because that in itself makes people look at a person in a different manner.”

Because her husband got HIV through a blood transfusion, the stigma and discrimination is less. But does it matter how one gets it, she queries. Categorizing stigma and discrimination as being at a personal, family, community and national level, Ms. Kaleeba advocates the use of the tool “openness” in dealing with it and urges society not to have tug-o-wars with faith-based groups but join hands with them in erasing stigma and discrimination.

To her discrimination, is tangibly punishable but the more insidious factor is stigma. “Stigma is deep-rooted. It is different. Stigma causes social death, long before the virus kills you.” Ms. Kaleeba winds up with a word of caution to Sri Lanka, about the “low prevalence” of HIV in the country. “If there is even one HIV infection, it can spread like wildfire. We cannot afford to be complacent.”

Who made it possible for the 8th ICAAP to be held in Colombo?Back when HIV/AIDS was still a hush-hush issue, there was one courageous person who came out and declared: “I am Positive.”

She is no more. Yet, Dr. Kamalika Abeyaratne, who died in December 2004, was the torch bearer who brought to the forefront all issues including stigma and discrimination with regard to HIV.

Dr. Kami, as she was fondly called, who fought for the rights of those living with HIV in Sri Lanka was one driven by a desire to serve rather than gain from society. She was the first Chairperson of the AIDS Coalition – convened by Companions on a Journey- which focused on the situation of those living with HIV and also worked with many other support groups.So to the question: Who made it possible, the answer is obvious.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.