- The government of Malawi is building measures into all facets of public policy against HIV/AIDS in an effort to stem the spread of the virus and improve treatment and care for the estimated 14 percent of its population living with the deadly disease.
A national policy Malawi's President Bakili Muluzi launched earlier this month in Blantyre would require legislative changes to promote prevention and better protect those living with HIV/AIDS, including invalidating infection as grounds for job dismissal and offering tax incentives for employers who provide comprehensive HIV/AIDS programmes.
The UN development agency, UNDP, today hails the Malawian government's HIV/AIDS programme. The UN agency had, in particular, noted President Muluzi's personal engagement in the fight against the pandemic. The two UN agencies UNAIDS and UNDP have provided technical and financial support for the National AIDS Commission for preparation of the policy.
Only recently, President Muluzi had urged Malawians to go for voluntary HIV testing and counselling as he had, noting that so far only 3 percent have done so, UNDP reports from Malawi. The President had also called for openness, including disclosing AIDS as a cause of death, to reduce the social stigma.
- Let us come out in the open, said Mr Muluzi. "My young brother Dickson, who died two years ago, died of HIV/AIDS. We can only tackle the problem if we are open. It is a serious problem. Why hide it?"
Several UN agencies are working to fight AIDS in the region. UNAIDS Executive Director Peter Piot recently said that his agency is fully committed to ensuring that access to effective HIV treatment becomes a worldwide reality. UNAIDS, working with the World Health Organisation (WHO), is campaigning to put at least three million HIV positive people in developing countries on anti-retroviral treatment by 2005.
Mr Piot noted that HIV prevention is bearing fruit among young people, with HIV infection rates falling. "These efforts need to be redoubled to ensure that our children remain HIV-free," he said, urging everyone to "stick to ABC - abstinence, be faithful and use a condom." He commended President Muluzi for leading the response to the epidemic, making it the country's number one challenge.
The Malawian President pointed out the need to revise or repeal a number of laws to implement the policy and protect the rights of people living with HIV/AIDS. He has asked the Minister of Justice and the Law Commission to review to criminal, labour, public health, customary marriage and divorce and taxation laws.
President Muluzi noted, for example, that the policy calls for amending the Employment Act to include HIV status among the reasons that do not constitute valid grounds for dismissal.
Janet Kayuni, chairperson for the Youth Council and a law student at the University of Malawi, told UNDP that existing legislation to protect children and young people against abuse, harassment and exploitation needs to be strengthened and enforced to ensure that the policy is effective. Many girls, especially orphans, are sexually abused by their guardians and even teachers, she asserted.
Ms Kayuni told the UN agency that very few young Malawians have access to sexual and reproductive health information, education and services appropriate for their age and needs. She added that young people have been denied the right to "full participation on matters affecting them," and urged that the new policy involve them fully.
In the past three years, the HIV infection rate among Malawians 15 to 24 has stabilised at about 14 percent, according to national statistics. Only 2 percent of children ages 5 to 14 are HIV positive, a prevalence Ms Kayuni described as a "window of hope" for an HIV-free country in the future.
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