HIV Bill: Discrimination ends, time to promote awareness
Removing discrimination against those living with HIV/AIDS is an exceedingly slow and painful process. In many cases, the best hope the affected have is the law. So the amendments to a Bill cleared by the cabinet on HIV prevention and control that make discrimination in employment against those with HIV/AIDS punishable with two years in jail and a fine of Rs 1 lakh come as a positive step. The amendments also bar unfair treatment in educational institutions, healthcare, residing or renting property and standing for office.
The person affected also need not reveal his status unless required by the court. Confidentiality by employers will help the affected person’s chances at the workplace as it is here that he can be discriminated against the most in a manner which affects his livelihood. Remember Tom Hanks’ case in the iconic movie Philadelphia. At least Hanks was able to battle his case in court and win but here the affected are rarely able to do so for fear of further exposure or lack of support and money.
Another enabling provision is that the states are expected to provide anti-retroviral therapy and infection management, facilitate access to welfare schemes and formulate HIV education programmes that are gender-sensitive, age-appropriate and non-stigmatising. This is good news but for many of the 2.1 million people living with HIV/AIDS, it would make much more sense if the systems to deliver all this were in place.
For medical care to be delivered in time, the public health system needs to function properly. This is not the case here. However, at least anyone denied this will now find the law on his side. The extent and depth of the stigma crosses all socio-economic strata. Education does not necessarily mean that attitudes towards the affected will improve. One of the most famous cases of discrimination against children took place in highly educated Kerala, which ranks the highest in awareness about the disease. In 2003, two HIV positive children Bency and Benson came into the news when their grandfather fought to have them admitted to a school. The children had been kicked out of three schools after their status was revealed. It took the intervention of the chief minister and a protracted battle to get them readmitted. The school had pleaded helplessness as other parents objected. There are many cases where the environment turns hostile when a person’s status is revealed. Not everyone will be able to counter this.
It is important that state governments work to create awareness of these changes in the law. It is only when you know your rights that you can benefit from the law. That should be the next endeavour along with putting in place the mechanisms that will make these amendments really work for those with HIV/AIDS.