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From Cameroun to Maine: Who Dictates What's Best for People Living with HIV/AIDS?

Written By: Jen Wilen
June 12, 2009

 

Last week, Quinta Layin Tuleh, a 28-year old woman from Cameroun, was given an unprecedented, extended jail sentence by Judge Woodcock in Maine in order “to protect her unborn child.”

Tuleh is pregnant, living with HIV, and in violation of immigration laws, which is why she was ostensibly incarcerated. Being in possession of false documentation gets between zero and six months. Add pregnancy and a life-threatening illness, and you get eight.

Tuleh was reportedly not aware of either being pregnant or HIV-positive at the time her of arrest. According to the Bangor Daily News, Woodcock “ignored the federal sentencing guidelines and calculated her sentence to coincide with her due date” to ensure that Tuleh’s baby would have “a good chance of being born free of the AIDS virus,”  despite the fact that Tuleh’s attorney had arranged for Tuleh to receive services at a community agency. 

How is Judge Woodcock qualified to know better about Tuleh’s healthcare needs than Tuleh or her healthcare provider, and how does he know she won’t get adequate treatment outside of prison?

 I travel to Cameroun on a regular basis, have friends and colleagues there that I communicate with daily, am familiar with the legal system, and can honestly say that this wouldn’t have happened in Cameroun. The U.S. is setting a pretty scary precedent, one this Central African country could follow if Tuleh’s sentencing stands. 

Don’t get me wrong; Cameroun’s not perfect. Over the last two years, nine men have been imprisoned on charges of homosexuality; abortion is illegal except in cases of rape, which must be proven by a jury, or immediate harm to the woman’s health, which must be confirmed by two physicians; the President of Cameroun recently changed the Constitution so that he could continue his reign indefinitely; and the law states a man is the head of the household. OK, so maybe “not perfect” is an understatement, but when it comes to  jailing people for being HIV-positive, Cameroun may be ahead of the game.

In late March of this year, I had the privilege of witnessing a group of diverse, intelligent and impassioned civil society members, including women living positively, youth, men working in sexual and reproductive health, and numerous women’s organizations dissect and analyze currently pending legislation in Cameroun that would criminalize exposure to and transmission of HIV. Although this legislation would not allow for the incarceration of women in order to ensure they receive medicine to prevent transmission of HIV during pregnancy or childbirth, it would be broad enough to include punishment for women who transmit the virus to their infants.

Given the opportunity to learn about this pending legislation and discuss in depth the implications if implemented, this group of civil society leaders decided immediately to rewrite the legislation and present a new, less harmful version to Parliament. When this group learns about their fellow Camerounian’s situation, I can safely say they will be outraged and want to ensure this legislation also includes language to protect future women from being subjugated to the human rights violations and discrimination Tuleh is facing in Maine. They will have a lot of work ahead of them and a lot of convincing to do, but they are determined.

I urge readers, particularly those residing in Maine, to take the same initiative as my colleagues in Cameroun and do whatever they can – write letters, protest, call Judge Woodcock or your local congresspeople – and get this sentence overturned. This violation of the human right to liberty and gross discrimination against people living with HIV cannot be allowed to go on unchecked.

Though they didn’t run it, I wrote a letter to the editor of the Bangor Daily News, in response to their June 3 article . Margo Kaplan of the Center for HIV Law and Policy has also written about Judge Woodcock’s decision on RH Reality Check, and the story has also been covered on Feministing, Feministe, and the F-Word blog.

Jennifer Wilen is the Assistant Program Officer of Francophone Africa at the International Women’s Health Coalition. Read her bio here.

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