Four states within Malaysia (Johor, Perlis, Malacca and Perak) have now either decided to implement or are currently implementing mandatory premarital HIV testing for Muslim couples. There is even talk of making it mandatory for all ethnic groups in the country.
Are we losing the fight against mandatory premarital HIV testing in Malaysia? Has the research into HIV/Aids, the reasons and rationale against this form of testing as well as concern for Malaysians living with HIV/Aids gone out the window?
Despite both the authorities and religious leaders being engaged to increase the level of HIV/Aids awareness and understanding in the country, we now see the latter teaming up with state health directors (who are doctors) and politicians to push forward this policy.
A ploy being used in the attempt to neutralise opposition to the forced testing is the phrase '... if one has been confirmed to be HIV positive, it is then up to them if they want to marry after that'. The overlooked fact is that in a Muslim wedding, the women must obtain the consent of the father, who in turn, will definitely want to know the results of the test.
The results will be known among the family members. In other words, despite 'counseling' for the couple, a breach in confidentiality (which will happen) will almost definitely result in discrimination and ostracisation of the HIV positive person.
The test could be used to deny the HIV positive the right to marry. It could be used to weed out the 'unsuitables'. And once found positive, what then? The procedure (as implemented in Johor) is silent on the issue of accidental HIV infection (wife or child) within marriage as a result of false results during the premarital phase. It is silent on assisting those found to be positive.
The testing procedure used totally ignores any possibility of the 'window period' for false results and the possibility of becoming HIV positive during marriage. The prevalent and dominant belief is that testing for HIV will result in prevention against infection.
For acceptability, the HIV testing is being sold as a measure to 'protect' women from HIV infection but I fear that women will end up being at the receiving end of mistakes, ill-conceived and unsupported policies, ignorance and fear.
Yes, we should test for HIV. But such testing must be based on full information, knowledge of the consequences of testing, how to deal with the results and, most importantly, with the voluntary consent of the individual.
We must continue to promote awareness of the disease and the need 'to know your status' through voluntary testing. Effective HIV/AIDS policies must be based on the science and reality of the epidemic in Malaysia.
Our policy and decision makers must learn from other countries as well as listen to those already living with the disease. They should not formulate polices based on ignorance, fear, politics and well-intended but misguided motives.
In the midst of all this, I must ask why are the HIV/Aids NGOs, community groups, People Living With HIV/Aids activists in Malaysia mostly quiet on this issue? Almost nothing has been said in opposition to this ill-advised move of forced HIV testing.
The Malay language media has been overwhelming in their support for this mandatory procedure. But I must ask, is mandatory premarital HIV testing of Muslims an inevitable reality for Malaysia?