On Thursday April 10th, the Senate of the Nigerian National Assembly passed the HIV and AIDS Anti-Stigma and Discrimination Bill. This Bill seeks to prevent the stigmatization of and discrimination against those living with or affected by HIV and AIDS in Nigeria. It seeks to protect their human rights and dignity, while encouraging those that are infected to declare their HIV status in a more friendly community and country. If this bill is signed into law, it will become illegal for a bank to firing a person living with HIV or for universities to conduct HIV testing as part of its routine medical examination for incoming students. To most people reading this, it seems that there should be no contention in the passage of the bill. However this bill has been introduced in the national assembly since 2006, so you can definitely understand the excitement from HIV and AIDS advocates in Nigeria.
|The joy of HIV and AIDS advocates in Nigeria|
Working for a youth focused organization, Education as a Vaccine (EVA), we were not initially concerned about this new piece of legislature. As far as we were concerned, the bill was developed to protect the rights of HIV positive employees against institutions that terminated employment on the basis of HIV status. We thought this bill had nothing to do with young people! This assumption was not totally unfounded, as the process to develop the bill was led by the Federal Ministry of Labour, as a strategy for addressing workplace related violations. It was not until 2009, when Gloria a young girl living with HIV, came to volunteer with EVA that we realised the importance of the bill.
“I was denied admission after passing all the requirements into university, because I tested HIV positive… They said I was a threat to the other students and so my admission was withdrawn…”
These words from Gloria was the motivation to learn more about the new proposed law. Working with Gloria and other young people, we reviewed the content of the draft bill and saw that there was no reference to the issues of young people. Especially on the issues of mandatory HIV testing by education institutions; denial or withdrawal of school admission and treatment of HIV positive learner, who had disclosed their status, different in the school settings. For example, some institutions could refuse to provide HIV positive students with accommodation on campus or created excluded areas of HIV positive students in dining hall. As crazy as this might sound, these are opinions of some individuals, including students, who have justified these notions under the basis of protecting the “masses” from the epidemic.
In 2009, we launched the RED CARD campaign to call for an end to HIV and AIDS stigma and
discrimination in Nigerian schools by urging legislators to pass the bill with the inclusion of the youth specific recommendations. The bill was passed by the House of Representative on October 2010. We chronicled our experiences with this process in an article published by the Participatory Learning and Action journal edition 64 under the title What business do youth have in making HIV and AIDS laws in Nigeria? Since 2009, it has been an overwhelming process, as the bill was not prioritised in national assembly. A country with the 2nd highest HIV burden and an estimated 3.4 million people living with HIV and AIDS as at 2012. So we can put this number into perspective, 3.4 million is more than the total population of several African countries, including Gabon and Namibia (approximately 2.2 million and 2.1 million respectively).
It was not until 2012 that we saw some attempts by the national assembly to move the process of passing the bill. This was partially due to the new leadership of the Senate Committee on Health and the House Committee on HIV and AIDS, Senator Ifeanyi Okowa and Representative Joseph Kigbu. These two legislators were more open and willing to take inputs from advocates, especially young people, which provided the needed platform for us to get our recommendations considered. An example was our participation in the public hearing on the bill organized by the Senate Committee on Health, where our youth advocate group made an oral presentation about the issues of mandatory HIV testing, stigma and discrimination faced by young people living with HIV and AIDS. Read more about the public hearing and the youth advocate group in our 2013 annual report.
|EVA’s youth advocate group made an oral presentation|
The passage of the bill is a major excitement for us at EVA but what is even more moving is the fact that there are references to young people in the bill. Although the final version of the bill passed by the Senate is not yet available to advocates, media reports including one from the Punch “It further made it an offence for any educational institution, private or public, to demand HIV / AIDS testing as part of its routine medical testing requirements for admission or accreditation of learners.”states an actual recommendation made by EVA and young people.
|NUC – Thought and Service|
While this is a significant gain, we know that the battle is not yet over. For the bill to become a law, both arms of the legislative arm must harmonize their individually passed bill. We will continue to follow up on both the leadership of the Senate and House of Representative Committee to make sure that the recommendations we have made make it to the final bill. Once the reconciliation of these bills is completed, we need to ensure that the President signs it into law. Given the pace for which other human rights related bills have been passed, we hope this bill will not suffer any further delays.
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed people can change the world; indeed it is the only thing that ever has…Margaret Mead