New plan for HIV marriage tests
By Prachi Pinglay
BBC News, Mumbai
Thursday, 31 January 2008
A committee set up by the Indian state of Maharashtra has provisionally approved the mandatory HIV testing of couples before marriage.
If the decision is made into law, Maharashtra would be the first state in the country to have such a scheme.
Officials attending the meeting said that compulsory testing was necessary in a state where HIV awareness is low.
But they say that the proposal will not be enforced until extensive public consultations have taken place.
The state of Andhra Pradesh announced similar plans in 2006 but they were abandoned.
India has one of the highest numbers of people with HIV in the world.
Supporting the use of compulsory Aids tests before marriage in Maharashtra, lawyer Jaya Nair of the state's Law Graduates Association said the move was essential for a society where HIV prevalence is so high.
The association has petitioned the Mumbai High court and Supreme Court over the issue, as well as making representations to the state parliament.
"We do not care what people do in their personal lives and this is not to intrude on their space," said Ms Nair.
"However, there are an increasing number of cases where a person does not know, or deliberately hides, his or her HIV status and goes ahead with an arranged marriage.
"The spouse and the children are at high risk and bear the brunt of it all their lives."
Another supporter of the proposal, radio broadcaster Pankaj Athawale, said that if it goes ahead the authorities will have to be on the alert for fraudulent certificates which might be used to cover up an individual's HIV positive status.
Opposition to this proposal comes from different quarters.
Guidelines laid down by the National Aids Control Organisation say that no-one should be forced to undergo a mandatory HIV test, and the results should not be used as preconditions for employment or providing healthcare.
The organisation argued that tests should be taken ahead of marriage only if both parties are in agreement.
"I don't think it should be compulsory. I am not comfortable with forcing people to do any kind of testing," said human rights lawyer Siddharth Narrain.
Management executive Prajakta Bengali argued that such an idea has a long way to go before it becomes socially acceptable.
"Families go through several rounds of horoscopes and planet charts but they will not agree to HIV testing," she said.
"And this is not about rural people or the poor. Most of the educated urban people would have issues even talking about it. Implementing this test would be near impossible."
But at a community clinic in north Mumbai, frail Sarita [not her real name] - who has been HIV positive for the last five years - wishes she had been tested before getting married.
"My husband never told me, and died as an outcast Aids patient in a local hospital," she said.
"Only after he was admitted was I told to go for tests, and the doctors discovered that I had contracted [the illness] too.
"Over the last few years I have lost family support and I cannot work like before. I was cheated and the person who cheated me is dead. I wish things had been different."