AROUND THE WORLD: Zimbabwe’s criminalisation of under-age marriage will decriminalise deliberate HIV transmission

Zimbabwe’s new proposed law which stops girls under the age of 18 from legally entering marriage and criminalises marrying off minors will decriminalise the deliberate transmission of HIV.

Justice Minister Ziyambi Ziyambi told the Zimbabwean Parliament last week the recent decision was in line with international developments but failed to name which countries also followed suit.
Ziyambi said the Marriage Amendment Bill, currently at drafting stage, will repeal the crime of deliberately passing on HIV in order to remove the stigmatisation of the virus.
“When this legislation came into effect, the thinking then was that we need to control the spread of HIV by criminalising those who transmit it to partners willingly. But the global thinking now is  that law stigmatises people living with HIV/AIDS and studies have shown that it does not produce the results that were intended,” Ziyambi said in response to a question by Zengeza West MP Job Sikhala (MDC).
Section 79 (1) of the Criminal Codification and Reform Act on deliberate transmission of HIV states whether or not he or she is married to the other person they shall be liable to imprisonment for a period not exceeding twenty years.
The act requires proof beyond reasonable doubt, however, Zimbabwean health organisations such as NAC Zimbabwe believe there’s a difficulty in proving such a crime.

 NAC Zimbabwe recently commented that “it is very difficult to apply this concept because health systems cannot determine who infected who and it could be a situation where the victim in the criminal case is the perpetrator.”
High profile figures such as Zimbabwean director of TB and Aids in the Ministry of Health and Child Care, Dr Owen Mugurungi, have also supported the recent proposal. Dr Mugurungi has stated that “If we look closely, the law was put up to slow transmission of HIV and Aids, but the situation on the ground is not pointing that way.”
“We are actually having new infections by the day and the worrying issue being that those infecting others and those infected are not coming out in fear of the same law,” he added.
Speaking to The Peoples News, Issac Gundani, 31, from Harare said he believed whether or not Parliament kept the law the main issue lied in the lack of awareness and education on HIV.
“We have HIV centres in Harare but they’re not as visible as they should be, but even if they were -would people go for check-ups?”
“What needs to happen is we need to instil more responsibility on schools and parents to actively educate their children and themselves on this issue and the effects of not getting a check-up and this should be done from a young age,” he told The People’s News.
He added that the current law is difficult and ineffective because people struggle to prove someone has intentionally transmitted the virus. He also questioned how someone could prove their innocence and whether or not people feel comfortable revealing their status in case their loved ones are imprisoned.
Gundani suggested an increase in proactive lessons for students to be taught on sexual viruses in order for them to realise they too can catch the virus. He believes teaching them on where to seek help will also encourage a larger and more open conversation on viruses, while also making the HIV centres more visible because it’s not something that should be hidden.
According to a report published by AVERT last year on Zimbabwe’s HIV epidemic, in 2017, the issue of gender inequality was still present within relationships and marriages, and drove HIV infections.
For example, only 69% of men believed a woman has the right to refuse sexual intercourse if she knows he has sex with other women. Although in the minority, 23% of females also believed women do not have the right to ask their partner to use a condom if he has a sexually transmitted infection (STI).
The study also found that more than a third of women who have been married have experienced physical or sexual violence from their partner. This prevents women from being able to negotiate using a condom, and puts them at higher biological risk of HIV.
Some have argued these are the main factors and why the HIV law needs to remain, in order to protect women and men who’re in vulnerable situations, such as abusive relationships where the husband will deliberately transmit the disease as punishment.
A 19 year old Zimbabwean student, who preferred to remain anonymous, said: “To me decriminalising this is almost as if to say we don’t care, and gives these people the power to do whatever they want without consequence. If this is causing stigma then lets put in more education and make the conversation on HIV the norm. But we should not remove this law.”
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