The country’s highest court issued the directive in response to a fundamental rights violation petition filed by Chandani De Soysa, who is from the rural community of Illukhena, Kuliyapitiya in Western Sri Lanka. Ms De Soysa became a widow last year. When she tried to enrol her five-year old son in the local school he was denied admission because he was believed to be living with HIV.
With support from UNAIDS and the Positive Women’s Network, Ms De Soysa filed her petition with the Supreme Court in February. The court’s directive which was released on 28 April stated that the rights to an education of children living with or affected by HIV must be upheld based on the country’s constitutional directive of universal access to education for children between the ages of 5-14.
The Supreme Court also went a step further reminding the State of its obligation to take necessary measures to protect, promote and respect the human rights of people living with HIV in order to eliminate discrimination that is experienced by them. This is the first court decision in South Asia to make a general pronouncement recognizing the human rights of all people living with HIV, and sets a precedent for future cases in Sri Lanka challenging HIV discrimination experienced in settings other than education.
“I would like to give a special note of thanks to all the strangers out there who offered their support in various forms – from money, food, scholarships to a simple word of encouragement. I can not express in words my gratitude for this kindness,” said Ms De Soysa. “My son has a dream to be a doctor one day and I hope he will be an HIV specialist.”
“This is a great day for social justice,” said Steve Kraus, Director of the UNAIDS Regional Support Team for Asia and the Pacific. “Sri Lanka’s highest court has stood up in support of people who are being left behind. From now on, no child can be denied access to education based on HIV.”
Princey Mangalika, Executive Director of the Positive Women’s Network in Sri Lanka said, “I would like to express my appreciation to the Supreme Court. This marks a momentously progressive step forward for the people living with HIV community in Sri Lanka.”
There were an estimated 3 300 people living with HIV in Sri Lanka in 2014, including around 100 children (ages 0 to 14 years). There have been other cases of children being denied school admission because of their association with HIV, which have been settled through mediation.
Discrimination against students affected by HIV also occurs in other countries in South Asia. In India, a petition filed by Naz Foundation (India) Trust, which provides care and support to children living with HIV, through the Lawyers Collective relied on publicly available reports to show that children have been systematically targeted because of their association with HIV – they have faced repeated incidents of humiliation, suspension, violence, segregation and expulsion.
HIV-related stigma and discrimination continue to prevent people from accessing key education and health services as well as reduce employment opportunities. Research conducted by people living with HIV in 13 countries in Asia between 2009-2014 found that an average of 12% of HIV-positive people surveyed reported exclusion from social gatherings and activities and 23% said they had been verbally insulted, harassed or threatened.
UNAIDS congratulates Sri Lanka on this historic step forward and urges countries in the region to introduce comprehensive laws protecting people affected by HIV against direct and indirect discrimination in all settings, including education, health care and employment. While courts in India have ruled to protect the rights of people living with HIV in specific settings, no country in the region has passed a national HIV law. Sindh Province in Pakistan has a comprehensive HIV law, but there is no such protection across the country.
UNAIDS also encourages governments to support legal literacy programmes and ensure access to legal services for people living with, affected by and at higher risk of HIV, so that they can pursue justice and help end systemic rights violations. (Colombo Gazette)