Foreigners with HIV singled out for discrimination

Foreigners with HIV singled out for discrimination

Date: January 1, 1970
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A new proposed law in Mauritius to stop the spread of HIV will entrench a culture of intolerance and legalize bigotry.

On the face of it, Mauritius seems to be one of the most progressive countries in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) when it comes to tackling the HIV and AIDS pandemic. People living with HIV and AIDS (PLWA) have free medical care and are given free anti-retrovirals.

But this access to health care and treatment is shrouded by discriminatory attitudes and practices, which have unfortunately crept into policies. Parliament is considering an amendment to Section 19 of the Civil Status Amendment Bill, for example, “to prevent the celebration of marriage between two consenting adults where the citizen of Mauritius is aware that the non-citizen suffers from HIV and AIDS and nevertheless wishes to get married to the person.”

There was not much debate on the motion. The Prime Minister said he was uneasy about this amendment and would prefer having reaction from civil society, as well as getting advice from the Attorney General.

A law to prevent people who are in love getting married just because one is a foreigner and is HIV positive is discrimination of the worse kind, and goes against one’s human dignity and human rights. This intended law entrenches xenophobia and fortifies the wall of silence that is still prevailing around people living with the virus.

The stigma attached to people living with HIV and AIDS is so acute in the paradise island of Mauritius that not a single woman has dared to talk openly about her status. Only two men have braved a cruel society to go public and one of them started Prevention, Intervention and Fights Against HIV and AIDS (PILS), the only non-governmental organisation that gives support to PLWAs and their families.

Where are we going in a country that boasts to be a model of democracy in the SADC region?
It is inconceivable that a Prime Minister, who has a solid reputation of chairing all sorts of committees including the National AIDS Committee, cannot put his foot down and tell his Minister of Health to withdraw such a backward law. In fact, this law should have never seen the light of day.

To add insult to injury, the Minister of Health, instead of returning from the July 15th World AIDS Conference held in Bangkok with a suitcase full of innovative ideas, decided to introduce this amendment. His explanation to Parliament was that “it is important for a foreigner to produce a medical certificate to certify that he is not HIV positive if he wants to marry a Mauritian. This will support our campaign in the fight against HIV and AIDS the more so as the prevalence of the disease is very low in the country.”

Asked for his comments, the President and spokesperson of PILS said: “Instead of moving forward the Minister of Health is taking us backward by 20 years. His declaration will undermine our fight to protect people living with HIV and AIDS. What he said in Parliament is shocking and I am not prepared to stay quiet. There is already a discriminatory law concerning immigrant workers and now coming with such an abomination is unbelievable…”

There was no public outcry when the Bill went to Parliament, and there was only one article in the mainstream media reporting on parliamentary debates, which included this repressive Bill. Mauritians are quick to put their heads and mouths in the sand, like ostriches, when it comes to HIV and AIDS. And in this instance, they also are quick to turn a blind eye to discrimination when those targeted are not nationals of the country.

Discriminating against foreigners is not the panacea for stopping the spread of HIV in Mauritius. Instead what we entrench by even considering such a law is a culture of intolerance, finger pointing, and legalized bigotry. In the midst of all of its real and tangible displays of a democratic society, Mauritius has now chosen to show its worst face.

Loga Virahsawmy is the President of the Media Watch Organization in Mauritius, a local chapter of the Southern Africa Gender and the Media Network.

This article is part of the GEM Opinion and Commentary Service that provides views and perspectives on current events. for more information. 


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