The proverb says, “It takes a village to raise a child”. But what if a mother in the village is living with HIV, and some of the villagers stigmatise her? What if that stigma creates a situation where the mother living with HIV is unjustly criminalised because of her HIV status? Then it takes more than a village to get justice for that woman. It takes a global movement to end HIV criminalisation to sensitise and train lawyers and expert witnesses. It takes national communities of women living with HIV to support that woman following her release, and to educate the community in which she lives about HIV.
In 2016, a Malawi court convicted a woman living with HIV of “negligently and recklessly doing an act likely to spread the infection of any disease which is dangerous to life” under section 192 of the Malawi Penal Code. She had attended a village meeting with her baby which she breastfed as usual before passing the child to her grandmother. Another woman then asked her to hold her baby. It was alleged that this child began breastfeeding briefly before the woman realised what was happening. The child’s mother then reported the incident to the police. The woman was arrested and without legal advice or representation, pleaded guilty, was convicted, and sentenced to nine months’ imprisonment with hard labour.
The circumstances of the case are all the more shocking because women living with HIV are encouraged to breastfeed in Malawi (and in other countries with high HIV prevalence and settings in which diarrhoea, pneumonia and undernutrition are common causes of infant and child deaths) and because HIV-related prosecutions involving breastfeeding are exceedingly rare. Unfortunately, we have seen an increase in the number of such cases since 2016. HJN is working to address this in a number of ways because we believe there should never be prosecutions of women living with HIV for breastfeeding.
In addition, the accused woman was taking antiretroviral therapy. The chances of HIV transmission through even long-term breastfeeding are very low (which is why WHO guidelines recommend it when access to infant formula and clean water are limited) and the chances of transmission during the brief period the baby allegedly fed were infinitesimally small. In fact, the accused woman’s own child, who was routinely breastfed, has not acquired HIV, calling into question any suggestion that she intended to cause harm to the other woman’s child. Perversely, for a system that unjustly condemned her for risking harm to the other woman’s child, her own baby was imprisoned with her, without any arrangements for appropriate feeding and care, negating any notion that the legal system’s purpose was to protect children.
Following media reports of her initial conviction, numerous individuals and organisations – including HJN and our HIV JUSTICE WORLDWIDE partners, ARASA and SALC – became involved in the case, ultimately changing the outcome for the woman and her family, and laying the groundwork for further anti-HIV stigma advocacy and education in the region. Her story demonstrates the vital role that education, training, strong networks, and community play in the pursuit of HIV justice.
Living with HIV-related stigma
When interviewed at her home in 2019, the woman referred to as “EL” talked about her life:
 The initials EL are used instead of her full name following a court order of anonymity to protect her privacy. The interview took place in 2019, during the village visit described later in this article.
“As kids, there were the two of us — me and my brother. My parents faced challenges raising us. Finding the basic necessities like soap and food was a tall order, let alone talking about going to school. It was difficult to get learning materials as well as proper clothes to wear at school. I worked hard in class but couldn’t get past Standard 5 at primary school. Eventually I dropped out, and my brother did the same, … My daily life was taken up doing house chores just like any other girl in the village, as well as helping my parents with farming. At 16, I got married.”
EL further described how she was diagnosed HIV-positive in 2015 after a de facto compulsory HIV test at an antenatal visit. She already had two children and was pregnant with her third. She had heard about HIV but did not know much about it. EL said that the healthcare workers provided a lot of assistance, giving her accurate information about HIV, including the importance of adhering to her antiretroviral treatment (ARVs).
EL said that she generally enjoyed life in her village, although at times she was subject to stigma and discrimination:
“When I went to fetch water at the community borehole, people would laugh at me, and whenever I wanted to participate in community work, you would find pockets of community members talking ill about me. Some people used to insult me, calling me names. But I persevered because my relatives, including the Village Headman himself, gave me support and always stood by my side.”
Members of EL’s family also faced discrimination. “Due to lack of information, a lot of people thought HIV was hereditary and because I was diagnosed HIV-positive, this meant that all my family members had HIV, and they were discriminated against,” EL said.
EL wonders if more could have been done to help her fight stigma. In particular, EL gained a lot of knowledge about HIV from the counselling she got when diagnosed, but perhaps she could have been better equipped with information to share with people in her community:
“A lot of people don’t know that if you adhere to ARVs, you reduce the risk of transmitting HIV to others. This information needs to be passed on to many people. There are also other issues to do with ARVs. A lot of people don’t have adequate information on the effects of ARVs and at the end of the day, they start pointing fingers at each other, giving people room to start speculating about issues to do with witchcraft.”
EL’s prosecution had repercussions for her whole village. One woman from the community explained:
“I was there and very close to where EL was sitting. Yes, she was carrying another woman’s child. This other woman had given the child to EL for safe keeping while she went to stand in a queue, but honestly speaking, I didn’t see EL breastfeed the child. I just heard some people who were sitting a distance from where we were sitting, as they started pointing accusing fingers at her.”
She said that things moved so fast that before they could think of anything to stop what she called “the rumour.” It had gotten out of hand and people started saying that EL had intentionally breastfed the child to transmit HIV.
After receiving a summons, EL voluntarily turned herself in at the police station. She was accompanied by the Village Headman (her grandfather) who wanted first-hand information about what crime she was alleged to have committed. That same day, police transferred EL to a larger town, where she was remanded for three days. At the age of 29, this was the first time that EL had ever left her village.
Days later, she appeared in court and the charge sheet was read out. EL recounted that she had not understood what was happening and could not make arguments because she had no legal representation. EL agreed with the summary of events as they were described, so she was found guilty and was imprisoned together with her youngest child.
She described life in prison as “hell”:
“After a week, my brother showed up to give me my ARVs. All this talk about a woman with HIV breastfeeding. I breastfed but I also found it tough to feed my baby while in prison because there was no provision of special food for babies. We were eating nandolo (pigeon peas) almost every day with Msima ya Mgaiwa (maize meal). And there was only one toilet for a cell of more than 50 people.”
After some time, relatives and other members of her community started visiting, giving her money she could use to buy soap and food for her baby. “When we heard from our Village Headman that she had been arrested, we were so devastated”, a woman from EL’s village explained. “We raised funds for some members to go and give her support only to learn that she had been transferred to one town, then another, but some of us did manage on several occasions to visit her and offer our support when she was in prison.”
Then, out of the blue, EL received a message that some people had come looking for her. She went to meet them: a lawyer, Wesley Mwafulirwa, and his paralegal. They explained why they were there and asked if she would like them to appeal on her behalf. She accepted enthusiastically. “I was excited but at the same time I was confused because I could not believe that I could be so lucky to have these people come to help me.”
Fighting the charges
Solicitor Wesley Mwafulirwa had volunteered to attend training to address legal barriers to prison health and human rights presented by the Southern African Litigation Centre (SALC). He travelled from Malawi to South Africa to attend the training which addressed useful regional and international mechanisms, and presented insights about legal practice and strategic litigation to support prison health and human rights, particularly for those facing heightened vulnerability to HIV and TB.
At the training, two lawyers spoke about their pro bono work. Wesley remembers one of them, Allan Maleche (Executive Director of KELIN), saying that each participant should take at least one case when they go back to their country. It was a turning point in Wesley’s career.
He had not been home long when he saw an article in the newspaper about an HIV-positive person convicted for trying to spread HIV. That person was EL.
Wesley, who lives in a small town in northern Malawi, drove for more than ten hours to get to the jail where EL was incarcerated. He explained his determination, saying “I was so fired up! I’d just come from SALC’s training … and I said, ‘I want to take up this case’.”
Wesley interviewed EL and offered to take her case pro bono. Wesley contacted SALC, who offered technical support. Their first step was to get an order for anonymity to protect EL’s identity and gain greater control over media reporting. Next, they faced an ethical question. They wanted to challenge the constitutionality of the law but that would take a long time. Because EL was in prison, they decided to undertake a criminal appeal instead. They applied for EL to be let out of custody on bail pending appeal. This is usually a difficult application to win, but they were successful and EL was released from prison.
In the appeal, the court was asked to consider whether the conviction could be justified, whether the penal provision was constitutional (arguing it was overly broad and vague), and whether the sentence was manifestly unjust. Wesley used his learnings from the SALC training to raise international principles and instruments relating to sentencing, which the court referenced and upheld. Michaela Clayton, then Executive Director of the AIDS and Rights Alliance for southern Africa (ARASA), and now a member of HJN’s Supervisory Board, provided expert testimony. Another expert witness, Dr Ruth Brand, identified through HJN’s global network, gave expert scientific evidence to show the risk of HIV transmission had been “infinitesimally small.”
The case was heard by Honourable Justice Zione Ntaba, who held that the proceedings in the trial court were irregular and “blatantly bias” against EL, compromising her right to a fair trial. Justice Ntaba found the charge sheet had been defective and therefore EL’s plea should not have been recorded as guilty. She noted the law must be sensitive to the accused’s knowledge or belief (or lack of) that HIV would be transmitted. Justice Ntaba decided the conviction could not be justified, acknowledging human rights principles against the overly broad criminalisation of HIV non-disclosure, exposure, or transmission. EL’s sentence was set aside. (The Constitutional challenge was referred to a full-member panel of the Constitutional Court although the case was not pursued.)
Notably, Justice Ntaba was a member of the African Regional Judges Forum to discuss HIV, TB and Human Rights (a process which is owned and planned by the judges and run with support from UNDP and funding from the Global Fund).
Fighting the stigma
Shortly after EL’s arrest, the Coalition of Women and Girls Living with HIV and AIDS in Malawi (COWLHA) and the Malawi branch of the International Community of Women Living with HIV/AIDS (ICW-Malawi) discussed the case at a roundtable meeting. At first, everyone was surprised and even laughed, questioning how she could have breastfed someone else’s child. They had never heard of a criminal case involving infant feeding and did not understand what they were dealing with.
During their discussions, COWLHA and ICW-Malawi agreed that the prosecution of EL was a manifestation of stigma and misinformation about HIV in the community. They learned more about the unjust measures that EL had experienced, like being imprisoned without being given a chance to be heard and not being given the chance to prepare and take her medication and things she needed to care for her child. COWLHA and ICW decided to get involved.
Concerned that EL could face social and community hostility after her release, COWHLA and ICW planned a visit to the village to provide psychosocial support to EL and to work with traditional community leaders to provide community sensitisation on HIV, addressing issues of stigma and discrimination. Their efforts helped change some community members’ ideas about HIV.
The community formed two support groups— one for youth and another for adults (notably both were predominantly female groups). They have conducted numerous activities, including home visits, supporting children to go to school, helping the elderly with house chores, and they have a garden where they grow vegetables and rice. They hoped to access loans to become self-reliant. They also had a list of issues they wanted to learn more about, including preventing mother-to-child transmission, sexual and reproductive health, positive living, stigma and discrimination, and treatment literacy.
Visiting EL at home
In September 2019, a three-member team comprising Edna Tembo (Executive Director of COWLHA), Charity Mkona (ICW Board Chair), and Peter Gwazayani (media consultant), set out for EL’s village.
The team was welcomed by the Group Village Headman, who took them to EL’s house. EL recognised Edna from the work COWLHA and ICW-Malawi had done in the community previously. EL welcomed the team with a big smile.
EL and her husband looked cheerful as they laid a mat on the veranda of their house for the visitors. Her mother later joined the discussion.
EL was interested to learn that HJN wanted to write about her case and the type of interventions that had been helpful, to share the story with advocates for HIV justice around the world.
EL recounted that when she returned to the village, “most members of my community received me with happiness, particularly my relatives. The day I arrived, they were jubilant. They celebrated with songs that we normally sing during special occasions in the village.”
EL lives with her husband, five children and her mother in a compound made up of three grass thatched houses. She introduced her children:
“The oldest is 13 and she goes to school, as do the second and third. The fourth, a little girl, is the child I was with in prison. She has not yet started school. And then there is this one, who I am breastfeeding. She is the fifth one. She has been tested for HIV on two occasions and will be going for the last test soon. The other two tests have come back HIV-negative.”
EL’s accuser and her family still lives in the same village which has presented some difficulties. EL said that on several occasions she had tried to greet them when they passed each other, but she had been ignored. “They don’t talk to me but from deep down in my heart, I have no grudges against them,” EL said. “I am just living my normal life,” EL says, although now she says that she would never agree to carry anybody else’s child, for any reason.
Moving beyond criminalisation
With respect to the community-level interventions, lawyer Annabel Raw, who worked at SALC during the time they supported the EL case said:
“As lawyers, we would never have thought to consider such an intervention had ICW-Malawi and COWLHA not shared their insights and been willing to support the client and her community. Their work has been so important to ensuring that meaningful justice was done to combat the actual root cause of the prosecution — stigma and discrimination — and to reconcile EL with her community.”
Engaging with the community also influenced ICW-Malawi and COWLHA’s thinking about HIV criminalisation. COWLHA’s Edna Tembo noted that:
Supporting people who have been prosecuted, particularly women, gives them power, … However, it is very important to stress that psychological support is absolutely vital for those who have been prosecuted. That includes family support, and a supportive community environment enabling acceptance of an individual accused.”
Tembo was also quick to emphasise that there is more work to be done. That work includes awareness raising and ongoing support to the community, especially to identify and train volunteers, empowering them to provide services at community level and to link them to health facilities and district offices for continued support and mentorship.
EL described her dreams for the future:
“My wish now is to see my children progress in school so that they become productive citizens in this community and help it grow. That’s my dream. If they get educated, they will be able to stand on their own and support others. My husband is not employed and it is a challenge to get money for school fees for our children. We would love to get a loan or training to have greater knowledge of economic empowerment because we want to be self-reliant. We would then love to lease some land to grow rice to sell to pay back the loan.
“It’s also my wish to see the lives of all people in the community uplifted. We farm but on a small-scale. If we were to be supported with funds, I’d love to see the community establish big rice farms, working in groups, harvesting for consumption and for sale. In so doing, we would be able to uplift our lives for the better.”
Learn more about the African Regional Judges Forum here.
Read more about the successful HIV and AIDS Management Act community advocacy here.
This article is based on information provided by ICW-Malawi and COWLHA following their visits to EL’s village, and an interview with Wesley Mwafulirwa published by UNDP. HJN provided financial and logistical support for the village visits thanks to a grant provided to the HIV Justice Global Consortium from the Robert Carr Fund for civil society networks.