In 1988, Dominic D’Souza was incarcerated in the province of Goa, India after going to a hospital to donate blood.
That hospital tested Dominic for HIV without his knowledge or consent. When the results came back positive, the local police arrested and quarantined him. All of these actions were allowed by a public health law in Goa meant to control the spread of HIV/AIDS.
When I was first approached to take Dominic’s case, I had my concerns. My colleague, Indira Jaising, and I had just established an organization called the Lawyers Collective to protect the human rights of vulnerable people, but we hadn’t taken a case like this before.
In fact, Dominic’s case would become the first time that India’s public response to HIV/AIDS was openly discussed in a court of law.
As I got to know Dominic and finally represented him in the Bombay High Court, I realized the significance of protecting the human rights of people affected by HIV/AIDS. The truth is that several aspects of the law continue to impact them in unique ways.
With vital support from the Levi Strauss Foundation, the Lawyers Collective – HIV/AIDS Unit provides free legal aid to people living with HIV/AIDS.
We believe that the epidemic can be truly controlled only when all people can effectively access HIV/AIDS prevention, care and treatment services. To this end, we regularly train people affected by new or revised health policies to inform and mobilize others.
The Lawyers Collective has also made significant contributions to the development of fair and just laws related to HIV/AIDS in India, especially in the area of non-discrimination in healthcare settings and the workplace.
Recently, the national Indian government approached us to draft a comprehensive HIV bill to protect the rights of people affected by HIV/AIDS and to prevent the spread of the epidemic.
That bill is currently under review by the Law Ministry and will be presented to Parliament. Among other key issues, it outlaws discrimination against people with HIV/AIDS across the board, both in the public and private sector. In addition, it addresses universal access to treatment.
It’s a far cry from how things used to be. Back in 1988, the health law in Goa that put Dominic’s life on hold was upheld. He was finally released in 1989. In 1993, he died of AIDS-related complications.
On his deathbed, he made me promise that I would continue to fight for the dignity and empowerment of all people affected by HIV/AIDS. It has been my life’s mission ever since.