In this encounter with SOLAADE AYO-ADERELE, the chairman, House Committee on HIV/AIDS, Malaria Control, TB and Leprosy, Hon. Joseph Kigbu, relates how soon Nigerians should expect the Anti-Stigmatisation Bill, which hopes to protect those living with the virus from discrimination
What is the status of the bill now?
I was made to understand that the bill has also undergone the second reading at the Senate already. So, I believe it’s almost done and our fellow citizens who are living with HIV/AIDS shouldn’t exercise any fear, knowing that their interests are being protected by their representatives.
How important is this bill?
It is important that as free-born citizens, people should be able to walk and work freely in the society without fear of discrimination on account of anything. If people who have malaria and any other illness or disease are not being stigmatised, those living positively should not be, either — whether at places of work, in the market or in worship places. Again, people living with HIV must not be discriminated against at the point of admission into any level of education and when they are seeking employment. In fact, the bill seeks to protect the interest of this category of Nigerians in all areas of national life.
In the interim, what is your advice for HIV-positive people in states where there are no substantive laws to categorically protect them from stigmatisation?
The issues regarding health are currently on the concurrent list. What that means is that if we pass the anti-stigma bill, it may not be binding on states because it is the sole responsibility of state houses of assembly to also enact anti-stigmatisation laws relevant to them. I’m aware that some states have already done that, while some haven’t. But there’s no such law at national level.
Of course, we’ve received petitions in the past, especially from police and military officers who had been discriminated against on account of their HIV status. The same goes for students who were refused admission into tertiary institution because of this issue. However, I can assure such Nigerians that when we reviewed the issues at the sixth National Assembly — and even now — we warned the affected agencies against the act.
So, I advise people who are being discriminated against on account of their HIV status to petition the House Committee on Public Petitions as well as the one on HIV/AIDS, and we will take decisive steps about it. Our reports will be binding on everyone concerned if it is adopted by the entire House.
What about those working in private organisations?
The parliament can call anybody to order in this country — whether he is a citizen or foreigner. So, whether you are working in a private organisation, small scale entity or non-governmental organisation, send a petition to us if you are confronted with the issue of stigmatisation.
During the last World AIDS Day, for instance, a police officer complained that he was discriminated against in the Force. Our committee wrote to the appropriate authorities, cautioning them to stop the stigmatisation and it was done.
So, while waiting for Mr. President to sign the bill into law, we urge any affected citizens to let the National Assembly know any issues they may be facing in this regard.
There’s this concern that the bill only protects those in formal employment. What about those Nigerians who are not in organised sector?
Actually, most of those who lodge complaints are in organised sector. As for those in informal employment, that’s where the issue of enlightenment and advocacy comes in. We still have much to do in this area and this bill seeks to advise the government that awareness about HIV must be stepped up, by educating people in the languages they can understand that stigmatising people living positively will not get us anywhere.
Considering that HIV knows no borders, is there any cross-border collaborations with other African countries?
Yes, we are working with the ECOWAS Parliament and the essence of the meetings is to curb the rate of spread in high-risk locations. We have tried to harmonise issues, such that our anti-stigmatisation bill in Nigeria should be similar to the ones in Togo, Mali, etc. So, the document is a comprehensive one and it takes into consideration the need for the immigration, port officials and customs and excise to be aware of the issues involved. Ultimately, we hope to present the bill as an antidote to HIV spread in the whole of Africa.
So, when should Nigerians expect the anti-discrimination law?
Before the end of this legislative year, it should be passed into law.