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India passes HIV/AIDS anti-discrimination law but stigma endures

Sydney Morning Herald - April 18, 2017

Amrit Dhillon, Delhi 'The stigma of AIDS' might sound like a phrase from another era but in India anyone who is HIV-positive or has AIDS continues to feel the whiplash of contempt and discrimination from the moment their condition is discovered.

To counter this treatment, the Indian parliament passed a new law last week that makes it illegal to discriminate against those with HIV/AIDS in jobs, housing, education, or in public life.

India has 2.1 million people with HIV/AIDS. Although attitudes in the big cities such as New Delhi and Bombay have softened slightly as people become more aware and sensitive, deep fear, bordering on hatred, continues to be the norm in more socially conservative smaller towns and rural areas where attitudes tend to be based on ignorance and superstition.

The United Nationals program UNAIDS called the new legislation a landmark that will provide strong legal protection not just against discrimination in the workplace, schools and homes but also unfair treatment in access to shops, restaurants, hotels, and public facilities.

"This is an important step forward for people living with and affected by HIV in India and around the world," said Steve Kraus, UNAIDS director in Asia Pacific. "This legislation begins to remove barriers and empowers people to challenge violations of their human rights."

Children can be thrown out of school. Adults have been sacked, refused homes, and denied hospital treatment by doctors who refuse to touch them. The HIV and AIDS Prevention and Control Bill makes all such discrimination illegal.

"Although most people with HIV/AIDS obviously don't tell anyone outside their family, employers sometimes learn of their condition when medical tests have to be carried out for insurance and landlords when they start seeing a tenant constantly buying medicines or ailing," said Paul Lhungdim, president of Delhi Network of Positive People.

Neelimi Mohanty is project director of a home for HIV-positive children, founded by G.Ravi Babu, on the outskirts of Hyderabad in southern India, called the Desire Society. The NGO runs four other homes in other parts of the country. It takes in orphans, houses them and enrolls the at local schools.

The latter is a mammoth task as both teachers and parents of the other children often rise up in disgust at the idea of having HIV positive children in the same classroom.

Mohanty says the hostility has not softened much ever since the case of Bency and Benson in Kerala caught the headlines. These two young siblings were left orphaned after their parents died of AIDS in 2000. Their grandparents continued raising them but when other parents heard of their condition, they forced the school to expel them.

It was one of India's most publicised cases. After a long, lonely battle, they were finally able to attend school in 2003. Bency, the girl, died in 2010, aged 15.

"There has been some change in the cities but in most places, people are still unwilling to accept our orphans. The parents always say 'why our school? Send them to another school'. They won't accept them," Mohanty said.

At the Desire home in Gurgaon, outside the Indian capital, neighbours even object to the rubbish. "They want the home's rubbish to be put in a separate dustbin, not the dustbins for the neighbourhood. Can you ever imagine them sharing a meal with our children?," she asks.

Mohanty has welcomed the new anti-discrimination law as a "sincere and long overdue" attempt to protect the rights of Indians with AIDS/HIV. While countries such as South Africa and Nigeria already have anti-discrimination laws, the Indian law is a first in South Asia.

Other NGOs in the same field have also applauded it but with significant reservations. One provision of the law is that state governments will have to set up an ombudsman who will look into violations oand take action.

"I would rather that the federal government had kept this responsibility. How do we know that the state governments will act on this? They are often fiscally weak and may not want to spend money setting up and maintaining the office of an ombudsman," Lhungdim said.

He would also have preferred the bill to have specified that the ombudsman will be a full-time post.

Anjali Gopalan, founder of the Naz Foundation which works with HIV/AIDS children, welcomed the law for giving a recourse to those who suffer discrimination but had strong misgivings about a clause in the legislation which promises that the government will provide free treatment and medicines "as far as possible".

"This is a huge loophole which will lead to problems. As to the ombudsman, when state governments implement federal laws, they make their own rules and these can often water down the original law so I'm worried about how this will work out," she said.

As for the provision of free treatment, Lhungdim saus the caveat is a "ready escape clause" for the government. He said primary health centres in India often run out of basic medicines and hospitals sometimes turn away patients for the flimsiest of reasons.

Mohanty thinks it will take "decades and decades" before most Indians treat those with HIV/AIDS fairly. Attitudes are changing, she concedes, but far too slowly. She speaks of the Hyderabad landlord who, unusually, agreed to let the Desire Society rent his building to use as a home for the orphans. After a few years, Desire was able to buy some land and build its own home. It then vacated the building.

"That landlord will curse us every day for the rest of his life. No one has been willing to rent the house since we moved out, just because our HIV-positive children, who have done nothing wrong, lived there," she said.

Source: http://www.smh.com.au/world/india-passes-hivaids-antidiscrimination-law-but-stigma-endures-20170418-gvmxq6.html.

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