ANTI-DISCRIMINATION LAWS FOR WORKERS WITH HIV/AIDS NEEDED, SAYS CONFERENCE

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By Lisa Williams

NADI, Fiji (February 25, 1999 - Pacific Islands News Association/PINA)---Anti-discrimination laws still don't exist in the Pacific Islands to protect workers who find themselves living with HIV/AIDS. And at least two officials at this week's First Pacific Regional Conference on HIV/AIDS and STDs say it's time for governments to bring in the changes.

The Suva office of the ILO (International Labor Organization says there's a need for Pacific Islands governments to make workplaces more open to workers living with HIV/AIDS so that they can work as long as possible.

"HIV is most common to workers - whether they be 15 or 40 years, they are productive, educated people and your economy depends on this generation of workers," says ILO Fiji Program Officer Margaret Reade Rounds. She says without adequate planning in the workplace on the rights of workers and employers facing the reality of HIV/AIDS, economies face collapse.

Rounds made the comments after a Pacific Islands woman living with HIV/AIDS told the regional meeting of being sacked once her employer found out she was HIV positive. The woman was infected by her husband and lost a child to the virus before knowing about her condition. Her husband has since died, his family has rejected her and her older children, and she has virtually no means of financial support.

"HIV policies have not been highlighted, and they should be," says Rounds of current labor laws. She says the ILO office in Suva has not received a single formal complaint from any former worker sacked because they are HIV-positive, and blames that on lack of awareness.

"In the Pacific we don't know what half our rights are, and we don't know where to look when those rights are challenged," she says.

She says employers and governments are not taking the discrimination issue seriously because the HIV/AIDS problem has not reached epidemic proportions.

"People don't realize what happens to them if they become HIV-positive," says Rounds. She says the fear that surrounds the virus often results to workplace discrimination and there is no specific legislation in the region to protect HIV-positive workers.

Fiji, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands are signatories to the ILO convention and many Pacific Islands use the ILO to draft up their own labor ordinances. However, the ILO international anti-discrimination laws don't specifically mention HIV/AIDS because it had not been identified when they were introduced.

The ILO termination of employment convention does not specifically refer to 'medical conditions' as prohibited grounds for discrimination, prompting a call from some observers for the terms to be extended to cover HIV/AIDS.

More legal comment on the rights of workers living with HIV/AIDS came from Miles Young of the Fiji Young Lawyers Association. In a paper presented to the conference Young says legislative measures are part of the multi-sectoral approach needed to effectively fight the spread of HIV/AIDS.

"Until recently we in Fiji and the Pacific generally perceived HIV as a medical or health issue," Young says. "Policies were developed from a medical/health perspective with little regard for developing legal and human rights-based strategies." He noted discrimination and human rights abuses, "are the experiences of people with HIV the world over, more so in countries where there are no institutionalized safeguards."

A recent UNDP-funded review of human rights in Fiji found those with HIV are not protected from discrimination when refused private medical treatment or employment because of their condition.

MAKE SEX EDUCATION COMPULSORY, SAY PACIFIC YOUTH

By Lisa Williams

NADI, Fiji Islands (February 25, 1999 - Pacific Islands News Association/PINA)---Pacific youth leaders have asked that sex education be made a compulsory part of the school curriculum in schools across the region as part of the strategy to fight the spread of HIV/AIDS and STDs.

A representative of the Pacific Youth Forum on HIV/AIDS made the request on the second day of the First Pacific Conference on HIV/AIDS and STDs.

Western Samoa's youth representative presented five key recommendations to the meeting. Compulsory sex education topped the list, followed by requests for more condom access for young people living in remote areas, and for higher professional standards from health workers to ensure confidentiality.

Peer Education programs have also been requested so that youth can take the safe sex message to other youth.

Finally, a plea for protection from discrimination against HIV-infected youth goes out to governments.

The session prompted lively debate from conference participants, who raised many questions on why strategies targeting youth and safe sex seemed to be repeating themselves without making real progress.

However, many delegates welcomed the chance to hear the voice of youth firsthand and discuss the concerns of future leaders with young people.

The meeting, sponsored by the governments of Australia, Canada and Britain as well as many UN agencies, has been set up and organized this week in Fiji by the Secretariat of the Pacific Community in both Noumea and Fiji. The three days of presentation and debate close this afternoon.

REGIONAL AIDS/STD STRATEGY GETS THUMBS UP

By Lisa Williams

NADI, Fiji Islands (February 25, 1999 - Pacific Islands News Association/PINA)---A comprehensive three year strategy to help prevent and control the spread of STDs and AIDS in the region has received thumbs up from senior workers and decision makers at the First Pacific Regional HIV/AIDS and STDs Conference.

The 37-page document, first released in 1997, went before a review session this week with many present saying it was a comprehensive and useful reference guide for safe-sex educators, project planners, and donor agencies.

Developing a strategy, checking on roles and responsibilities, and planning for support and specific programs are part of the regional strategy, which will be presented to a regional meeting of Heads of Ministries in Palau later this year.

The question of whether the strategy should be reviewed this year or wait another 18 months was put to the meeting, which agreed that work for the review next year could begin now.

A key focus of the strategy is a five-point plan for approaches to tackle HIV/AIDS prevention -- education and prevention, treatment and care, surveillance, safe blood supply, and legal/ethical issues.

Among the current concerns likely to surface in the revised strategy are a separate section on capacity building for Non-Governmental Organizations and how to deal with the complex issue of confidentiality in Pacific Islands communities.

Also on the drawing board, a guiding frame for dealing with the many different agencies able to assist with HIV/AIDS and STD education which was left out of the current strategy.

Issues of mother to child transmission have also taken on a rising importance because of their economic and budgetary implications, and some advocacy workers would like to see more of a 'Pacific-specific' framework for dealing with HIV/AIDS.

Lisa Williams is training coordinator for the Cook Islands Media Association. She also is a member of the UNESCO/PINA Pactrainer group of regional journalism trainers. She is in Nadi to cover the first Pacific regional HIV/AIDS and STD conference.

PINA is the main professional organization of the Pacific Islands news media. Members are radio and TV stations, newspapers, magazines, and national organizations of news media practitioners in 21 Pacific Islands countries and territories. For more information, contact Nina RATULELE, PINA administrator, pina@is.com.fj

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