Dialogue with East African Legislative Assembly Members on Pediatric HIV and Child Rights

A mother and her children in Malawi.

James Pursey/EGPAF

Members of the East Africa Legislative Assembly (EALA) were recently confronted with the reality of a legal environment being a barrier to adolescents knowing their HIV status.

While AIDS is now the leading cause of death for adolescents in Africa, and the second leading cause of death among adolescents globally, laws hinder most adolescents from accessing HIV testing when they need it.

All under-18 are legally considered children in most countries, but in the realm of public health, children between 10 and 18 years of age are adolescents and therefore should be afforded opportunities to protect themselves and prevent further transmission of HIV.

Policies among the East African community partner states vary significantly. While Uganda allows HIV Testing and Counseling (HTC) at 12 years, Rwanda is at 15 and Tanzania 18. Kenya does not have an age limit, however it uses other factors apart from age: an adolescent can be tested without the consent of their parents or guardian if they show maturity, is of reproductive age, is married or is engaged in behaviors that put them at risk of contracting HIV.

“East African States need to learn from each other and consider the benefits of having policies that have lower age of consent for HTC so that adolescents have clear access to HTC, care and treatment when they need it,” Titus Syengo, Country Director for EGPAF-Kenya observed.

Policies should support health providers to make decisions that have positive impact on adolescents’ health without fearing that they may be breaking the law,” Titus said.

Speaking at the meeting in Nairobi the chairperson of EALA’s General Purposes Committee Dr. Odette Nyiramilimo noted that dialogue was needed because the Bujumbura Declaration obliged partner states and other stakeholders to take steps to protect children’s rights.

EALA organized the meetings in five East Africa countries to assess the implementation of laws and policies on the rights of the child in the East African Community Partner States.

The Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation (EGPAF) and the Inter Parliamentary Union (IPU) participated in four of the five meetings where the issues of HIV and adolescents, female genital mutilation, gender based violence and early marriages featured prominently.

EGPAF teams in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda briefed the 12 members of the General Purposes Committee of EALA together with officials from various government ministries about HIV and child rights.

The members were informed about the EGPAF/IPU brief on increasing children’s access to HIV treatment which sensitizes parliamentarians on how they can be involved in the course of their work to improve pediatric treatment rates.

They also had an opportunity to watch the video Until no Child has AIDS that highlights the problems that children face in accessing HIV treatment.

Among the issues that were raised from the sessions with EGPAF and IPU were a list of laws that they would like EALA to follow up on, continued sensitization of EALA members and other policy makers on PMTCT and HIV/AIDS issues.

EALA members also sought to know more on how EGPAF was addressing the issue of stigma and discrimination and the role EGPAF plays in nutrition for HIV patients in their programs among others.

At the final plenary with the EALA members, Mary Namubiru, Director of Clinical Services, EGPAF-Uganda concluded that, “Legislators have a critical role to play in helping children and adolescents to access HIV treatment through appropriate legislation, budgeting and holding the ministries responsible to account.”