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Kenya Task Force to Study HIV-AIDS Legal Issues - 2001-08-02

The Kenyan government launched a task force Thursday to look into legal issues relating to HIV-AIDS. It aims to stem the spread of the virus, while also protecting human rights.

The government task force will be tackling a number of tricky moral issues raised by the HIV-AIDS pandemic, which is said to be killing some 700 Kenyans every day.

Kenya's attorney general, Amos Wako, says one priority is to protect the rights of the country's estimated 700,000 AIDS orphans.

Mr. Wako says they will be seeking to end the practice of many orphans being cheated out of property inheritance by scheming relatives. "We have found that the relatives of the children, rather than playing out their role under the traditional society of looking after the interests of the children and the properties of those children, are disinheriting these children and taking the properties themselves," he says. "This is now a common problem, so we need to change our laws to ensure that the rights of these children, particularly over their properties, are protected."

Children's rights also feature in the question of whether pregnant women in Kenya should be forced to be tested for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Expectant mothers could then be given medication to ensure the disease is not passed on to the baby.

Mr. Wako says the task force will also discuss the threat that HIV poses to the right to confidentiality that doctors and religious leaders guarantee their patients or members of their congregation. "How do we preserve the noble rule of confidentiality, given the rate and mode of spread of HIV-AIDS? Many feel that in the case of HIV-AIDS, the role of confidentiality ought to be adjusted to allow doctors, and maybe also leaders of religions, to inform spouses or partners, (in situations) where they confirm that a patient of theirs, or a member of their congregation, is HIV positive," he says.

In a polygamous society like Kenya, if one woman has the HIV virus, it is often passed on to her co-wives without their knowledge.

Similarly, harmful cultural practices such as wife inheritance will be debated. According to the Luo community's tradition, a widow has to have sex with another man after her husband dies in order to be "cleansed." This contributes significantly to the spread of HIV, and many feel the custom should be outlawed.

The Kenya task force will also discuss whether people who deliberately infect others with HIV should be charged with murder, as President Daniel arap Moi recently suggested.

The task force includes church leaders, doctors, social workers, lawyers and government officers. It is expected to come up with recommendations for a new legal framework for Kenya by the end of the year.