Zimbabwe: The decriminalization of HIV transmission, a landmark development

Roselyne Sachiti — Articles, health and society writer

Since the first cases of HIV in Zimbabwe were identified in the mid-1980s, understanding of the disease, its prevention, care and treatment has improved, as has the science.

Today, the number of people who contract HIV each year is falling in Zimbabwe, although levels are still relatively high, according to an international organization, AVERT.

In 2018, there were 38,000 new infections (33,000 in adults and 4,800 in children). In comparison, 62,000 people became HIV positive in 2010 (47,000 adults and 15,000 children).

The HIV epidemic in Zimbabwe is generalized and largely fueled by unprotected heterosexual intercourse.

Antiretroviral drugs have changed that. Those diagnosed early have access to it at public and private rural and urban health facilities in Zimbabwe.

Those like Johana Kasirori, who has lived with HIV for 33 years, others like Tendayi Westerhof, who has had the virus for 20 years, adhere to their prescribed treatment regimen and have lived longer and healthier lives, turning HIV from a death sentence in a chronic disease.

Over the years, the country’s criminal law regarding HIV decriminalization has evolved at a snail’s pace, with debate after debate on the issue.

But today, the law has finally caught up.

Willful transmission of HIV will be decriminalized once the Marriage Bill, which was passed by Parliament a fortnight ago, is signed into law by the President as the Government and Parliament strive to keep to the familiar with international standards.

Parliament’s intervention will end the criminalization of transmission through section 53 of the Marriage Bill which repeals section 79 of the Criminal (Codification and Reform) Act which criminalized the transmission of HIV to a partner in certain circumstances.

The section about to be repealed criminalized anyone who knew they were infected with HIV or knew there was a real risk or possibility that they were, and who intentionally did anything or allowed anything to be done that would infect someone else or involve a real possibility of infecting another person.

These people are guilty of willfully transmitting HIV, whether or not they are married to the other person, and are liable to a sentence of up to 20 years in prison.

Convictions were extremely rare.

In his presentation to the National Assembly during the early stages of the bill, Minister of Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Ziyambi Ziyambi said the new global thinking was that the law criminalizing transmission stigmatizes people living with HIV.

He said when the law was enacted it was thought it would help combat the spread of HIV by criminalizing those who willfully transmit it to their partners.

“But the global thinking now is that this law stigmatizes people living with HIV and studies have shown that it does not produce the expected results,” Minister Ziyambi said. “What the ministry will do is repeal this section of the law and ensure that we stay up to date with modern trends around the world.”

Welcoming the latest developments, the National Director of the Pan African Positive Women’s Coalition Zimbabwe (PAPWC ZIM), Westerhof, said it was an important step, even though it had taken so many years when the first A case of HIV was discovered in Zimbabwe around 1986.

“And we fought against this criminalization of HIV and the stigmatization of people living with HIV was very widespread and I am happy that this bill has been signed into law,” said Westerhof, who is also the representative for people living with HIV. HIV on the Board of Directors of the National AIDS Council.

She added: “However, as we try to follow international standards, we also need to ensure that on the ground people are educated on the laws, i.e. communities should be educated on the laws. laws, because now decriminalization has been removed.”

She urged any potential people living with HIV to continue to take these safer sex precautions and protect their loved ones and not take advantage of the new law.

“I’m glad they realized it addresses the issues of stigma and discrimination because we can never end HIV and AIDS as long as stigma and discrimination are there,” Westerhof said. “Remember we have to end AIDS by 2030, where we all say we want zero stigma and discrimination.”

Westerhof hopes that with decriminalization there will be a decrease in gender-based violence, especially against women and young women.

“It’s a good law and we respect it although it took many years, but I think most of us have been involved in debates that were going on in civil society, portfolio committees for many years. many years, etc.”, she said.

“Finally, these efforts have paid off. HIV transmission should never be criminalized. Debate over the years and legislators have seen fit that HIV should never be criminalized because the law was there.”

She called for educating communities about it and for scaling up efforts to prevent new HIV infections through convectional means that include delaying early sexual debut for young people, practicing safer sex, making available sexual and reproductive health services such as PrEP.

“Now we hear that in South Africa dapivirine is now available, we just hope that it will also be available in Zimbabwe so that we really reduce the HIV infection rates and also make marriages of the safe havens, where people can enjoy their marital rights without worrying about one infecting the other if one partner is infected,” she said.

“So it’s a great development and we’re happy with it, although there’s still a lot of work to do.”

A young Zimbabwean HIV advocate, Anna Sango, said removing punitive laws, policies and practices and promoting a protective legal and policy environment has been instrumental in making people feel they can access safely to health services.

“The decriminalization of HIV is a step in the right direction,” she said. “In Zimbabwe, this is a breakthrough for the HIV and AIDS program. Now, thanks to effective treatment and increased awareness, people living with HIV who regularly receive treatment achieve suppressed viral loads , meaning they cannot transmit the virus.”

She added that Zimbabwe, as a country, has aligned itself with ongoing and new initiatives that are helping to reduce new infections, such as the UNAIDS 90 90 90 targets as well as the 10 10 10 targets which speak of “the removal of punitive, legal and policy environments that deny or limit access to services”.

“All of this requires a coordinated response and approach to be achieved. It is important to know that zero discrimination is more than a slogan, it is essential to achieving universal health coverage,” she said.

Tariro Kutadza, a representative of people living with diseases who is also a TB champion for the StopTB Zimbabwe partnership and the Global Fund Coordinating Committee, said the criminalization of HIV and AIDS transmission has not produced fruit anywhere in the world.

She said the transmission of HIV and AIDS remains a puzzle. “HIV is a sexually transmitted infection (STI), which has different facets unlike others like syphilis, gonorrhea, etc.,” she said. “HIV has a lot, the cycle, the mutilation, the types of all these issues and also the impact of HIV – socio-economic etc.

“It’s a big deal so provoking things that can’t be proven becomes very difficult unlike gonorrhea, syphilis etc where you can point out I got this from my husband etc.”

Kutadza said she doesn’t know what the problem of willful transmission brings to someone born with HIV and AIDS.

“For someone to say that I slept with someone and an incident or something involved passing HIV to someone is a headache,” she said. “When science is silent, sometimes we should be silent too.”

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