Almost two years after they were appointed and gazetted, members of the HIV/Aids tribunal were finally sworn in last week. If they discharge their duties as expected, the tribunal could herald a new dawn for persons living with HIV/Aids who have often faced discrimination.
Their tenure lasts three years, during which the tribunal has the mandate to summon witnesses, take evidence, and recommend action to be taken on anyone who is found guilty of discriminating against people on the basis of their HIV/Aids status.
“The HIV/Aids Prevention and Control Act does not allow discrimination because of one’s HIV/Aids status. The fact that the tribunal is now legal means additional power to fight such discrimination which is still present in Kenya,” said Prof Alloys Orago, the National Aids Control Council (NACC) director.
This includes individuals and companies, hence an employee cannot be sacked on the basis of his HIV/Aids status. The Constitution’s provisions on equality and freedom from discrimination make it illegal to discriminate against a person on the basis of race, sex, health and marital status, among other factors.
“You will be surprised that in some companies there are still issues of discrimination against workers living with HIV/Aids even as we push for the end to such treatment,” said Ms Faiza Devji, a research and product development manager at AON Kenya.
The HIV/Aids Act was established in 2006, but due to lack of a tribunal enforcement of some of its provisions has lagged. As a result, companies and local organisations have relied on a range of programmes, especially in the corporate world, to educate people on how to support and live with people infected or affected by the virus.
A month ago, one such local workplace programme was commended by the Global Business Coalition on HIV/Aids, Malaria and Tuberculosis (GBC) under the banner Business Action on Health Awards.
Although Del Monte Kenya did not scoop the top award in the workplace/workforce engagement category, which was worn by Gold Fields Ghana Limited, the company was listed alongside Chevron Nigeria Ltd and The Dow Chemical Company as having workplace HIV/Aids programmes that are fit to be emulated.
Gold Fields Ltd operates a comprehensive workplace and community education, prevention, treatment and support programme for mine workers and their dependants as well as communities living around its Tarkwa mine.
The project trained 150 workplace and community health educators and reached over 16,000 people in 2010 through condom distribution, radio programmes and health-focused drama, and abstinence clubs for school children.
At Del Monte Kenya, the creation of a medical department and integration of the HIV/Aids workplace programme into the company’s medical scheme, where the disease is handled like any other disease, was the secret to the company’s emerging among the best performers out of 70 entries. The programme dates back to years before the HIV/Aids Act was enacted. It was established in 2001 to create awareness of the scourge among staff and neighbouring community members. Then, the firm was losing about 40 employees per year to the disease.
A decade ago, HIV prevalence in Thika, where Del Monte is located, was 37.4 per cent and the same currently stands at 4.1 per cent, according to local health statistics.
“There has been an improvement in how issues on HIV/Aids at the workplace have been handled as a result of such programmes, but setting up a tribunal is welcome as independent implementation on the laws touching on the disease will be achieved,” said Ms Devji.
But without a clear-cut channel of addressing gross mistreatment of HIV/Aids patients, health experts say that such programmes cannot achieve much in fighting stigmatisation.
For example, there is need to set up penalties on offenders under the Act which, according to Prof Orago, are not specified.
Adoption of an HIV/Aids tribunal has been cited as a step towards addressing management of the pandemic. “Since the tribunal will operate as a court, there will certainly be laws that advise on how to deal with cases of discrimination. We hope that this matter is taken seriously if the war on stigmatisation is to be won,” said Mr James Kamau, the coordinator of Kenya Treatment Access Movement.
Children infected with the virus have emerged as the biggest losers, with about a half of them accessing treatment.