SADC members of parliament recently adopted the minimum standards that have been developed for the protection of key populations in the context of HIV and AIDS.
Key populations are people who face much higher rates of HIV and AIDS than the general population and are most at risk of contracting HIV. They include people who inject drugs, men who have sex with men, transgender persons, sex workers and prisoners. However, stigma, discrimination and violence drive them underground, far from essential health services.
The adoption happened after an intense, highly polarised and lengthy debate during the 44th Plenary Assembly Session of the SADC Parliamentary Forum that was held in Maputo, Mozambique. The plenary is the highest decision-making organ of the body that brings together 14 national parliaments of the SADC Region.
Namibian lawmaker Sebastiaan Karupu spearheaded the debate for the adoption of the minimum standards that many people hope would ensure that no one is left behind as Southern Africa, in tandem with the rest of the world, strives to overcome HIV and AIDS.
For years the forum has worked towards the protection of all population groups in the context of HIV and AIDS and has stood firmly in favour of adoption of Sexual Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR), HIV and AIDS norms, which holistically capture the desire to legislate aspects of HIV responses at a domestic level.
Karupu argued that the SADC Model Law on HIV in Southern Africa that SADC PF developed in 2008 and other initiatives show the Forum’s commitment to making a difference, notably under its SRHR, HIV and AIDS Governance Project funded by the Embassy of Sweden in Lusaka, Zambia.
He contended that comprehensively responding to HIV and AIDS requires, also, protecting key populations through targeted interventions.
“HIV prevalence in key populations can be as much as five times higher than the general population. This may well be the tip of an iceberg,” he said.
The minimum standards are the first such in the SADC Region and contain key policy and legal directives from a parliamentary perspective for the protection of key populations.
“The minimum standards are designed to act as a guiding resource for parliaments as they enact their own legislation pertaining to key populations and have been crafted based on international best practices but customised to the Southern African region,” said Karupu, who is also the Vice Chairperson of the SADC PF’s Human, Social Development and Special Programme Committee.
Additionally, he said, the minimum standards reinforce the SADC Regional Strategy for HIV and AIDS Prevention, Treatment and Care and SRHR among Key Populations endorsed in November, 2017 by SADC Ministers responsible for health and HIV and AIDS.
“They will thus ensure that the executive arm and the legislative arm of the state are adequately capacitated and equipped to protect key populations,” he said.
He said the minimum standards seek to provide comprehensive protection underpinned by principles of equality under the law and non-discrimination.
“These principles address different levels of governance including executive action which ensures access to medicine and treatment for people, populations and their systematic inclusion in national HIV programmes.”
A legislator from Lesotho, Tsepang Tsita-Mosena seconded the motion.
“The minimum standards act as a benchmark for member parliaments and policy makers, and facilitate the legislative drafting process as member states adapt them to the local context,” she said.
Issues related to key populations remain highly polarising within the SADC Region where in some instances, national constitutions, archaic legislation, attitudinal and other barriers are stacked against hard-to-reach populations.
The motion was vigorously debated, with some MPs expressing reservations and citing provisions in their national constitutions while others felt that the issue of key populations was a “hot” one which might jeopardise their chances of being re-elected to parliament.
However, the Chairperson of the Human, Social Development and Special Programme Committee of the Forum, Robina Jadoo-Jaunbocus from Mauritius, was on hand to allay fears and dispel myths and misconceptions.
“It is important not to get lost in the complexity of the issues … Minimum Standards are about the protection of key populations in the context of HIV in Southern African,” Jadoo-Jaunbocus said.
She said in Mauritius, HIV prevalence is concentrated in key populations.
“I believe the situation is the same across Southern Africa where segments of KP’s are disproportionately exposed to HIV.”
Botswana MP Duma Boko said it was incontestable that key populations need targeted interventions and called for boldness.
“We all agree that these people need protection. Now that we are in agreement that they exist, let us also be in agreement about the fact that there must be a certain minimum level of protection that must be extended to them as well. Since we now embrace the fact that they exist, let us embrace the fact of their entitlement as a fundamental human right to treatment, to access health facilities,” he said before the motion was adopted.
Dr Catherine Sozi, the Director of the UNAIDS Regional Support Team for Eastern and Southern Africa, saluted the MPs and pledged to provide direct support as well as mobilise other technical partners to support the SADC PF to implement the minimum standards.
Dr Sozi said that time had shown that an effective response to the HIV epidemic is one that meets the needs and reduces vulnerabilities of the most marginalised and fragile communities.
“We will not reach the end if we don’t change the way we approach marginalised communities.
The development of the minimum standards for the key populations is not only the right approach for the HIV response, but also the right approach for health, for human rights, and for inclusive societies.
“It is the right approach to reach HIV targets, and the right approach to attain the Sustainable Development Goals. The UNAIDS applauds the region’s members of parliament who have taken this decision, showing how Southern Africa can lead in human rights based, evidence-informed HIV response that can serve as a model across the world,” Dr Sozi said.
Amitrajit Saha, the team leader for HIV, Health and Development in Africa at the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), also hailed the MPs.
Mr Saha said the minimum standards provide a solid foundation for parliamentarians to oversee and advocate for an attitudinal change and the reform of policies and legislation to ensure that key populations are treated equally in the provision of HIV treatment, care and support.
“UNDP is committed to continue working with parliamentarians and the SADC Parliamentary Forum on this important transformative agenda and other issues of common concern to the region,” she said.
Ms Boemo Sekgoma, the Acting Secretary General of the SADC PF, said the adoption of the Minimum Standards was a huge step forward for the SADC region where there is a lack of harmonisation of administrative and legal provisions protecting Key Populations in the context of HIV.
“SADC national parliaments will henceforth have a benchmark to assess their domestic provisions on KPs and this will greatly facilitate relevant policy recommendations and legislative drafting processes,” she said.
Ms Signe Rotberga, the Regional Programme Coordinator with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), said the adoption of the minimum standards was significant as the world marks 70 years since the adoption of Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
“SADC members of parliament have made a decision that will bring us closer to the implementation of the Article 1 of the Declaration which recognises that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights,” she said.
Noting that the UNODC was working with SADC to implement a programme to make the SADC Region safer from crime and drugs, Rotberga said UNODC “will be pleased to continue the collaboration for development of the new standards that will support the work of parliamentarians”.