Behind Bars: Discovering Your Former Partner is HIV Positive

This intervew with Marama Pala, an executive director from New Zealand who discovered that her former partner was HIV positive when she saw him on the front page of a newspaper article entitled ‘Face of Fear,’ is part of the Behind Bars series by Kevin Osborne and the International Planned Parenthood Federation.

“The High Court Trial awful for me, he was found guilty by jury and sentenced to seven years imprisonment, on his release he was deported. During the trial he had large numbers of supporters trying to keep him in the country for his daughter. I was made the villain because I put him in jail and forced him out of the country.”

I was infected on 23 July 1993 by an African Man in New Zealand – Peter Mwai. I found out that he had HIV from a newspaper article with his face on the front page saying ‘FACE OF FEAR’.

The article below described how he had infected women with HIV and if anyone had had contact with this man to ring the police. I did, and then was asked that, if I should I test positive, would I help them stop this man from infecting any other women? I said yes, and then I was tested shortly after.

After a two week wait the test came back positive and charges were laid. 

The police had evidence that he was told he had HIV in June by an infectious diseases clinician. I was infected in July, and fell within the time frame to charge him. Whereas the other women he infected didn’t, but five other women could charge him with reckless endangerment.

I had asked him to wear a condom, he refused. I did not insist, because I had very little knowledge about HIV, I thought he was too healthy-looking and he had already shown me a picture of his baby daughter who was healthy too.

HIV transmission is currently not the subject of a specific ‘law’ in New Zealand, but there is  legislation from 1969 about intentionally infecting someone with a disease. Peter Mwai was originally charged with this, but the police could not prove ‘intent’ and the charge was lessened to Grievous Bodily Harm, as well as the reckless endangerment charges.

There was a High Court Trial – that was awful for me. He was found guilty by jury and sentenced to seven years imprisonment, on his release he was deported, and subsequently died of TB in Uganda. During the trial and his release time he had large numbers of supporters trying to keep him in the country for his daughter. I was made to feel like the villain because I put him in jail and forced him out of the country.

I think there is sufficient criminal law to stop the rare person who behaves irresponsibly. New laws would cause more stigma and discrimination for those already living with HIV.

Not all people living with HIV are reckless, 95 per cent of them would be deeply affected should they ever infect another person. It’s the people that don’t give a damn and intentionally or thoughtlessly expose people to the virus – that small five per cent is making it worse for the rest of us, and they need to be held accountable.

Age and wisdom have changed my mind about this issue. At the time the case was so hyped, and drama-filled. I believed I’d be supported afterwards, I wasn’t.

I was so young and easily influenced by the police. I had no idea of the consequences at the time.

This court case did no favours for dark-skinned men living with HIV in New Zealand. It created a stereotype that all ‘black’ men with HIV were intentionally infecting large numbers of women. 

Yet the evidence shows there have only been a few cases. The few have made it worse for the rest of us. Now I’m married to a HIV positive man from Papua New Guinea, and he is dark skinned.

My husband and I have a great relationship, but he is very aware that, should it end, and if he was to live as a single man in New Zealnad, that the stereotype would follow him. The truth of this came home to me on one occasion when he was discriminated against, unfairly, by the police because of the colour of his skin and his HIV status.  

I take the approach that no disclosure is necessary if safe sex is practiced, but if someone is having casual sex on more than one occasion, then that becomes a grey area.

I still support the idea that it is the decision of the person living with HIV, as long as they practice safe sex.

Apart from those two scenarios, I would still support the right of the person living with HIV to make that decision, either way; it’s a personal choice to trust someone with those details.

Personally, I have told every sexual partner since my infection, but because of my trial and the subsequent publicity, I was exposed and everybody knew of my case and my infection, therefore I had no choice but to disclose, in case they found out another way. 

If someone has an unsafe sexual encounter, I would support the anonymous disclosure of the ‘track and trace’ system through a sexual health clinic. It isn’t only the responsibility of the person living with HIV to stay safe. 

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