Clearing the way

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When a free legal aid service for marginalized communities affected by, or vulnerable to HIV and AIDS was set up with collaboration between a community based group and the Manipur State Legal Services Authority, it heralded a new chapter in the state in terms of support systems for people living with HIV/AIDS and others like drug users, trans-genders and sex workers. Though there have been earlier instances when these communities did get legal redressal, they were far too less compared to the stigma and discrimination being faced by them besides having their fundamental rights violated. In fact, there have been numerous cases where people belonging to the aforementioned communities have been thrown out of their jobs and their children turned back from schools, where people have had to leave their jobs or widows turned out of their marital homes once their husbands died. Fortunately, such cases are no longer prevalent as compared to the situation in the 90’s and later on owing partly to the lack of a growing awareness about HIV and AIDS but mostly because of the steps being taken by various grass roots NGOs and activists working in the sector who engaged with the legal and constitutional frameworks of the country to make people belonging to marginalized communities to be recognized first as citizens of the country and hence, equal before the eyes of the law. The widespread global alarm and fear of HIV and AIDS in its initial years would slowly give way to intervention programs to combat the HIV/AIDS pandemic with no mention of the word ‘rights’ till the year 1995 when Dr Jonathan M Mann, former director of the World Health Organization`s Global Program on AIDS gave a call for the centrality of human rights in addressing the HIV epidemic. Notwithstanding the call, there have been many instances where HIV and AIDS have become the cornerstone of stigma and discrimination and the fundamental rights being denied in various parts of the world, including India and Manipur.

The country’s first legal case involving the rights of a person with relation to HIV took place in the late 80’s when a Goan resident was found HIV positive following testing on blood that he had donated to a hospital. The HIV test was performed without his knowledge or consent, and the results were revealed not to him, but to the local police leading to his arrest and confinement in an unused TB sanatorium. At that point, this action was as per an amendment to the Goa, Daman and Diu Public Health Act that authorized the State to mandatorily test any person for HIV and isolate them if they tested HIV-positive. But the man’s mother filed a writ petition arguing that the provisions of the Act violated her son’s fundamental rights on various counts following which, the policy of isolation was not ideal but practical since the interest of public health supersedes an individual’s rights. More interesting was the debate and discussion in the public domain where increasingly, the rights of the general population of people to be informed if someone was HIV positive was held more important than the right of the individual to have his confidentiality protected and his consent taken before being tested for HIV. The same debate was repeated in another much debated case when a to-be bridegroom was asked to get his blood tested for HIV and his result disclosed to the to be bride’s family without his consent.

But from these cases till date, there has been a legal awakening to the rights of people living with HIV/AIDS and those who may be at risk. The graph of awareness and sensitivity in Manipur can also be seen from the fact that Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code was overturned following a public interest litigation in the Delhi High Court seeking legalization of same sex sexual behavior between consenting adults. Incidentally, the first reported cases of HIV/AIDS in Manipur in 1998 was based on an Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) study that took the blood samples of drug users who were in jail. The samples were collected without informed consent and the results of the test published without any counseling to those being found to be HIV positive, thereby violating the rights of the persons concerned. There was no legal action taken with regard to the manner in which the HIV tests were being carried out. That was then, for in the few months after the free legal service cell was set up, a lot of ground has been covered with various cases being solved free of cost proving that when there are enabling support systems, there will always be people willing to seek help.

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