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August 02, 2012

Zimbabwe Woman Fights Conviction of Deliberately Transmitting HIV

by Sebastian Mhofu

HARARE — A 34-year-old Zimbabwean woman - who last month was found guilty of deliberately infecting her husband with the HIV virus - is fighting her conviction.  Her lawyers have approached the country's highest court, demanding repeal of the law she was charged under, saying it stigmatizes HIV/AIDS. 

HIV-positive Samukelisiwe Mlilo is facing 20 years in jail for infecting her husband with the HIV virus.  But she is not yet serving her sentence because of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, who is representing her.

In Zimbabwe, it is a crime to deliberately transmit the HIV virus. Lizwe Jamela, a lawyer from the rights group, wants this law struck down because he says it is unclear whether Mlilo or her husband had the virus first.

"It raises a number of constitutional issues," said Jamela.  "So the reason why we had to go to the Supreme Court, there are questions which a magistrate or high court could not answer vis-a-vis the constitution of Zimbabwe, in terms of discrimination and in terms of the law being too broad and too broad to an extent that it violates the freedom of protection by law."

Jamela said in the case of Mlilo there was no proof that she had infected her husband because her husband may have had the virus first.  According to court papers, Mlilo only discovered her HIV positive status when she became pregnant and went for prenatal care.  Zimbabwe's health delivery system encourages all pregnant women to go for HIV testing.

Tinashe Mundawarara is an AIDS activist who believes that the deliberate infecting of partners is not proper.

Commenting on the law under which Mlilo was charged, Mundawarara said, "But this particular reference to HIV, we are saying it stigmatizes people living with HIV.  It brings out HIV as this disease which carries a criminal tag.  We are saying no to that.  But if the state would wish to proceed with criminal sanctions for risk behavior, general criminal laws should be used and not an HIV-specific provision."

According to state papers, Mlilo lived with her husband between 2008 and the 2010 pregnancy.  She disclosed her status to her husband who then reported the matter to the police. 

"At the point we do not know who infected who," said Tinashe Mundawarara.  "This is an example of the violation of women’s rights.  Women are likely to know of their status first.  Mlilo might have been infected by her husband, no one knows, and got charged and convicted."

It now remains to be seen if the Supreme Court will repeal the law which was enacted to curtail the deliberate spreading of HIV in a country with one of the highest HIV infection rates in the world.  United Nations figures show that about 1.2 million Zimbabweans are living with the HIV virus.