AIDS activists are demanding a full apology from a Kenyan cabinet minister who recently suggested that isolating HIV-positive people may be the way to eradicate the pandemic.
"In Cuba, when President [Fidel] Castro was still very strong, anybody who was tested with HIV and AIDS was actually locked somewhere and once you went in, you did not come out," said Esther Murugi, minister for special programmes, on 28 January at a meeting with members of parliament on HIV/AIDS. "I don't know whether we should be that drastic or what we should do. But sometimes I think, maybe that is what we should do so that those who are ill are locked in."
Kenya's National AIDS Control Council falls under the Ministry of Special Programmes.
Nelson Otwoma, coordinator of the Network of People living with HIV/AIDS in Kenya, said her comments were highly irresponsible. "I wonder what was ringing in her head as she said what she said. Other than violating people's rights, such a suggestion creates stigma, even if not implemented," he told IRIN/PlusNews.
"We haven't dealt with stigma completely... Such sentiments coming from somebody of her stature might just awaken the devil of demonizing HIV-positive people by people who might hold a view like hers and who were simply waiting for a trigger," he added.
Jacqueline Sewe, a member of local NGO Women Fighting AIDS in Kenya (WOFAK), has called on the minister to either publicly apologize to people living with HIV or resign. "HIV is not a contagious disease and it is saddening to hear a cabinet minister say people should be isolated because of their HIV status," she said. "It is inhuman. She must publicly apologize or resign for what she said."
In a statement, the Gender Violence Survivors Network condemned the minister for her remarks, terming them "insensitive and uncivilized".
"Isolating PLWAs [people living with HIV/AIDS] will not solve the problem, but will speedily promote and fuel the already existing stigma and discrimination associated with HIV/AIDS," the statement said. "Fear of disclosure due to the threat of rejection, isolation, violence or abandonment by [a] partner leads to new infections within relationships."
|I wonder what was ringing in her head as she said what she said. Other than violating peope's rights, such a suggestion creates stigma|
In a text message, the minister told IRIN/PlusNews she was not promoting the idea of isolation, but was merely suggesting it as one option. "I don't think I said people should be isolated," the message said. "I only gave examples of what has been done elsewhere and wondered if we could achieve anything if we tried that here."
Murugi was at the centre of a separate row linked to HIV in 2010, but on that occasion her comments in support of tolerance towards men who have sex with men (MSM) drew praise rather than criticism from AIDS activists.
During the meeting on 28 January, while not condoning homosexuality, she reiterated her call for Kenyans to face up to the reality of MSM in order to deal with HIV in this high-risk group.
While stigma towards people living with HIV has reduced significantly over the years, change has been slow. According to a 2010 study by ActionAid International and WOFAK, a majority of respondents in three Kenyan districts felt that people with HIV deserved their positive status as a punishment for morally unacceptable conduct.
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