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No law in place to protect their rights

Social discrimination is the direct result of a lack of public awareness
HIV Positive People Dorji does not blame his parents for sending him out of their home. They did not know anything about HIV.

It was relatives, who told his parents that HIV spreads from touching and living together, he said. “So I stayed in a hotel for three months, and for three years I’ve lived with my head low,” Dorji said. “Even children started saying, ‘look uncle AIDS is going.” Dorji got infected in 1999 and was detected HIV positive in 2000.

Two orphan sisters in Pemagatshel, who were on anti-retroviral therapy, lost their friends when the younger sister, a class IV student, one day told her friends that they were HIV positive. No one wanted to sit next to them, as people in the village became suspicious, when health workers visited them.

“We had an audience with His Majesty, where we’d taken photographs; so we took those with us and showed it to the girls to prove that HIV isn’t transmitted by sitting together,” he said.

A HIV positive prisoner in Samtse had about five months to complete his term and the health ministry had requested he be pardoned. He was, but friends in prison told those who came to visit, about his status. Soon the whole community wanted him out.

In 2006, an HIV positive monk’s name was struck off the monastic body’s list and his stipend stopped.

That same year, an army personnel tested HIV positive in Dewathang. He was transferred to the headquarters in Lungtenphug. “During fall in, the officer told everyone why he was transferred,” the 30-year old HIV positive man said. “The officer said the reason why he had been transferred was because he’d die soon. I wasn’t given housing facilities as well.” Today, he lives in his wife’s village as a farmer.

These stories were shared with representatives from the dratshang lhentshog, royal civil service commission, labour ministry, judiciary, media and health, who had come together for half a day to discuss protecting the rights of people living with HIV (PLHIV) on October 12 in Thimphu.

“It’s to assure joint efforts towards condemning HIV-related stigma and discrimination, and to ensure an enabling environment for PLHIV through continued support to infected and affected community,” health ministry’s program manager for the national HIV/AIDS and STIs control program, Namgay Tshering, said.

The fear of death is so powerful, health officials and PLHIV said, that when the person learns about his status, some spend all their savings thinking they might die soon, while others start drinking.

“What kind of legal protection would we get if go public about our status and face discrimination?” one of the HIV positives asked. To date, there are no separate laws to advocate the rights or support PLHIV.

High court drangpon Tshering Namgay said while it’s not specific, Article 7, section 15 of the Constitution states that all persons are equal before the law and entitled to equal and effective protection of the law, and shall not be discriminated against on the grounds of race, sex, language, religion, politics or other status. He said the “other status” part would cover the HIV status.

Public health director Dr Ugen Dophu said problems might arise in its interpretation. Drangpon Tshering Namgay suggested the health ministry propose such a law to the legislative committee of the national assembly.
Chief program officer with the communicable disease program, Tandin Dorji, said awareness could help address stigma, while discrimination could be addressed legally.

With 184 HIV positive people detected so far, there has been a high level of confidentiality, which may not be the case, when the numbers increase.

Be it subtly, stigma and discrimination do occur in health care facilities also, such as the operation theatre, the outpatient department or for dialysis, Dr Ugen Dophu, said.

There have been instances, he said, when the doctor keeps postponing the operation date for an HIV positive person. “No action has been taken so far, but we ask another doctor to operate the patient,” he said. “The health worker, who refused, is sent to train in a hospital of HIV positive people, and they come back with a changed attitude.”

On health workers breaking confidentiality, he said, in case of HIV, they are forced to disclose the status to the infected person’s sexual partner, who needs to be protected if he or she is negative. It also occurs among health workers, he said, but not beyond them.

However, there has been a case in the east where an HIV positive woman’s status was revealed to some people in the village. “She was on her way home from the BHU, when some school dropouts teased her and called her HIV positive,” one of the HIV positive persons said. “On inquiry, it was found that the information was shared by the health worker. The woman came to Thimphu to discuss the issue, because living in her village was becoming difficult.”

By Sonam Pelden

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