HIV activist and human rights campaigner, Bisi Alimi discusses whether people who pass on the virus should be punished by the law
Over the past few years I have had the opportunity of people telling me about their HIV diagnosis. This is possibly based on the fact that as an HIV positive person, I have been very open about my infection.
However this was not something that happened over night. When I was diagnosed in 2004, I was shattered and destroyed, my whole life came to an end and I was even suicidal. Many times I think back to the night I might have been infected, I think of the man who told me ‘HIV is a myth’, I think about how naive and gullible I was to have believed him despite the fact that 18 months before then I had started working in HIV as a volunteer.
There are no excuses for my stupidity, but there is strength in knowing that there are certain mistakes in life one cannot undo, and one of them is being HIV positive when you can control it.
So when people call me about their own HIV status, I see a connection and a need to reach out to them. But I have to ask the question ‘whose responsibility is it to stop HIV transmission?’
This is not easy to answer and I know there are many sides to this argument. I have been blessed to have well-respected HIV activists in my life, people that have mentored me and challenged my ideas.
One of them is Paul Clift who helped me come to terms and come out with my status. He encouraged me to stand up and speak up. It was a big task – despite the fact that I had moved away from Nigeria then and started living in England, I still felt I could not be open about my HIV status.
Another inspiration is Edwin Bernard, a respected HIV criminalization expert and researcher. I remember a conversation I had with him about people who are prosecuted and convicted for passing on the HIV virus. I strongly believed that if you transmit HIV knowingly or unknowingly you should be ‘done for it’. I know this view was shaped by my own situation and the anger I still have towards the person that infected me.
Bernard disagreed with me and I was not only shocked, I was upset. He told me there was more to the issue than having a criminal case against the person that transmitted the virus; it was more also about the emotional and legal constraints that such a process will bring to bear.
A little over a year ago (26 July 201s), the Sun newspaper in the UK carried a front page story about a Zimbabwean titled ‘HIV monster Nkosinati Mabanda gets four years’. He was accused of having reckless unprotected sex with nine women although only one got infected.
I was working with the African Health Policy Network as an intern then and immediately I spoke to my boss and said we needed to write to the Sun to complain the story was unfair and painted HIV positive people in a bad light.
I was told to write the letter to the Sun and also do a press release. I couldn’t believe I was writing against what I would have termed ‘intentional HIV transmission’, but there was no concrete proof Nkosinati indeed infected the woman.
And I remembered my conversation with Bernard about the aftermath of court cases. No matter how much we might have tried to hide the identity of the women, the face of Nkosinati on the front page of the Sun outed them. Therefore not only was he sent to jail for supposed transmission of HIV (something the court can not prove) but the court proceedings have outed the many women he slept with.
During the International AIDS Conference in Washington last month (July), I listened in shock to how many people in America have been criminalized for HIV transmission just for spitting at or biting someone. Not only is this bizarre, but it challenges the whole concept of normalizing HIV testing. If I know that I will be an outcast for being positive, I would rather not know my HIV status.
And that’s dangerous in an era when we have treatments that, while they can’t cure HIV, have been proven to prolong the life of positive people and allow them to be otherwise healthy. Why should anyone want to live in denial?
So, though this might sound quite mean, it is the responsibility of the person who knows he/she is positive to avoid HIV transmission. But my advice is to always think the other person is positive and therefore protect yourself.
When I was still uncomfortable with my status, I found it really hard to tell anyone I was HIV positive, but even then I would never have unsafe sex. I am determined that HIV stops with me.
Though my opinion about HIV criminalization has shifted, I really felt for the 20-year-old who called me two weeks ago to tell me he had just been diagnosed with HIV and was crying on the phone saying he was suicidal.
He had called the guy he knew he got the infection from to tell him to go and get tested. But rather than go to the clinic, the man had stopped taking to him, stopped picking his calls, deleted his profile on the gay site they met online and opened another one.
And that made me angry; this guy knows he is positive but he is going round possibly infecting people intentionally – of course I can’t say that for sure but the story sounds very familiar.
I no longer support criminalization of HIV transmission but I am still not sure if people that intentionally infect others should be allowed to walk free.
Bisi Alimi is a human rights campaigner who started his work in Nigeria in the late 90s before fleeing to the UK where he was granted asylum in 2008. He is a co-founder of the LGBT Kaleidoscope Trust where he serves as the director for Africa. He is also the convener of the Migrant African MSM Sexual Health Project, and project seeking to work with the African MSM community in the UK and Europe.