Page last updated at 14:49 GMT, Wednesday, 7 April 2010 15:49 UK

Malawi defends plans to outlaw HIV transmission

HIV patient, Malawi
About 12% of Malawi's population is HIV positive

A Malawian official has defended in a BBC interview plans to make it a crime for a person who knows they are HIV positive to infect someone else.

Plans for the new bill were announced in March and provoked a heated debate about whether or not the criminal law should be applied to HIV transmission.

Supporters claim the proposals would help reduce new HIV infection rates.

But sex workers oppose the bill, arguing it is discriminatory and would put them in a no-win situation.

"It's not fair to knowingly infect somebody," Cyrus Jeke, spokesperson for the Ministry of Gender, Children and Community Development, told the BBC's Network Africa programme about the government plans.

"The underlying factor is that if anybody knowingly infects somebody… that means he commits an offence."

Malawi has been badly affected by the Aids epidemic and about 12% of the population are HIV positive.

Who infects whom?

Under the new legislation, sex workers would be liable to prosecution should they fail to disclose their HIV-positive status to their partner or a client and then go on to infect them with the disease.

There are no straightforward answers but what we're doing is to educate the populace
Cyrus Jeke
Gender ministry spokesman

They argue that by being forced to disclose their status, they risk losing their partners and clients.

"The social circumstances and the law combine to place [a sex worker] in a cruel dilemma," a protester at a recent demonstration against the bill told Malawi's Nyasa Times newspaper.

"If she discloses to her partner that she is HIV positive, she risks losing everything.

"If she does not disclose, she risks prosecution on criminal charges."

Speaking about the possibility of HIV-positive prostitutes losing clients, Mr Jeke told the BBC: "The question we're facing as a nation is should we let economic benefits for a few individuals risk the nation?"

Another controversial aspect of the proposed bill is how the courts would decided who infected whom in cases where both partners in a relationship discovered they were HIV positive.

"It's a big challenge," said Mr Jeke.

"I think there are no straightforward answers but what we're doing is to educate the populace."

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