HIV legal review pushes case for reform, new laws

People living with HIV and AIDS need stronger legal protections, international experts say, as victims of the disease still face widespread prejudice, discrimination and stigma that could prevent them from seeking early diagnosis and treatment

By Shwe Yee Saw Myint   |   Monday, 13 October 2014

The health department and other government bodies concerned should be prepared to launch a program of community consultation leading to the enactment of new laws, or the amendment of current legislation, to protect people living with HIV/AIDS, Eamonn Murphy, country director of UNAIDS, told The Myanmar Times.

“Myanmar needs laws to protect the rights of people living with HIV. It could be either an HIV law or amending and changing existing laws that discriminate [against] people living with HIV and key populations,” he said.

Mr Murphy was speaking following the release in September of the National HIV Legal Review Report, a wide-ranging study of the legal situation as it affects people in Myanmar living with HIV/AIDS.

The report makes 70 recommendations, including six “quick wins” – steps that could be taken in 2014-15 to improve the legal and policy environment for those living with HIV/AIDS and populations considered at a higher risk of infection.

These quick wins have already been endorsed by the Joint Parliamentarians and Community Network Consortium Committee on Human Rights and HIV, which was formed in May to initiate changes to laws and policies to improve the response to HIV.

They include new instructions to the police to support HIV prevention and treatment; new guidance on HIV-related discrimination and confidentiality in healthcare, education and employment; new instructions on universal access to life-saving drugs, such as anti-retroviral treatment; better guidance on the rights of HIV-positive pregnant women; repeal of a section of the excise law criminalising possession of needles and syringes; and ensuring a planned patent bill will enable Myanmar to access affordable generic medicines where necessary.

Mr Murphy said successful implementation of these recommendations could help potential sufferers who fear to seek HIV prevention services and allow timely access to HIV testing and treatment, thus reducing new infections.

Mr Murphy said people living with HIV, men who have sex with men, sex workers, and people who inject drugs are often stigmatised and discriminated against. Employees are tested for HIV and dismissed if they test positive. HIV patients are refused hospital treatment, receive substandard care or are even charged double the fees paid by other patients. In some hospitals, HIV patients are segregated from other patients, or are denied surgical operations. There are also reported examples of police abuse of sex workers and men who have sex with men.

The review was conducted at a cost of US$50,000 by a partnership of UNAIDS, the UN Development Programme and Pyoe Pin from August to December 2013, together with the National AIDS Program and in consultation with NGOs, people living with HIV and others.

Ma Thuzar Win, of the Sex Workers’ Network in Myanmar (SWiM), said she expected many challenges to calls for legal reforms, especially from conservative MPs.

“For example, when MP [Daw Sandar Min] proposed to amend and reform the suppression of prostitution act to make prostitution legal, other MPs rejected it,” she said. “Based on this I think it will not be easy to achieve legal reform for people living with HIV.”