Gender/Violence Against Women/HIV/AIDS
23 October 2002, Rape suspects face HIV tests  

By John Battersby, Christelle Terreblanche, Jillian Green and Themba wa Sepotokele

Rape survivors will be able to demand that their suspected rapists be tested for HIV, in terms of a law approved by the cabinet.

According to the Compulsory HIV Testing of Alleged Sexual Offenders Bill, survivors of sexual offences can apply for the alleged perpetrator to be tested for HIV and the results disclosed to the survivor.

While details of the legislation have not been revealed, a statement after Wednesday's cabinet meeting said the bill provided a "speedy and uncomplicated mechanism" for survivors of sexual offences to determine the HIV status of their alleged attackers.

'It might prevent the victim from taking anti-retrovirals'

A legal expert said that while the bill would be welcomed by women's advocacy groups, it was likely to be controversial in terms of personal privacy requirements.

"It might be a problem if the HIV status is regarded as an aggravating factor in sentencing," said the expert, who did not want to be named.

However, opposition parties across the spectrum have welcomed the announcement.

Sandy Kalyan, health spokesperson for the Democratic Alliance, said that in the past, victims of sexual crimes had to apply to the court to obtain an order for the perpetrator to be tested.

"The bill will entrench the right of assaulted victims for speedy treatment through prophylaxis," she said.

The head of parliament's committee on health, James Ngculu, said the bill could "help victims to know their status and their need for treatment".

"This is a comprehensive approach to deal with crime and HIV/Aids," he added.

Inkatha Freedom Party health spokesperson Ruth Rabinowitz said the bill was the "brightest light that we have seen on the horizon yet, signalling a constructive government approach to HIV/Aids".

"We should generally promote testing more, because that would help us to roll back denial of HIV/Aids," she said.

Kobus Gous of the New National Party said the NNP had called for such a measure almost two years ago.

"We are very happy, because now people will know whether to use preventive medicine," he said.

People Opposing Women Abuse spokesperson Kelly Hatfield said her organisation had for a long time tried to draw the focus onto the survivor of rape.

"Any move made to put the survivor in a more empowered position is welcomed," she said.

Hatfield added that when a person was raped, it was an infringement of their rights, and "compulsory HIV testing for the perpetrators will put them in a position of difficulty, rather than placing the stigma on the victim".

Childline South Africa chairperson Joan van Niekerk said that while the bill enforced a rape survivor's right to information and to know the HIV status of the offender, testing of the offender might happen too late to be of any real assistance to the survivor.

"A disadvantage of the bill would be that if the offender's tests are negative, it might prevent the victim from taking anti-retrovirals. The offender could be in the window period - in which infection is not yet apparent - and thus test negative," she said.

She added that, whether the perpetrator was tested or not, the survivor should take anti-retroviral drugs within 72 hours.

Aids Consortium advocacy officer Sharon Ekambarum applauded the law, adding that more energy should be channelled into the prevention of woman abuse.

"The rape survivor's rights have been violated and she has to receive post-exposure prophylaxis within 72 hours after the vile act," she said.

Ekambarum pointed out that the law could be of benefit to women who were raped by their partners.