Discovering your former partner is HIV positive

From Behind bars: life stories of people affected by the criminalisation of HIV. Visit Criminalize Hate not HIV for the full story.

Marama Pala, an executive director from New Zealand, discovered that her former partner was HIVpositive when she saw him on the front page of a newspaper article entitled 'Face of Fear'.

‘I felt like a war veteran' - no more legislation to create unnecessary criminals

"The High Court Trial was awful for me, he was found guilty by jury and sentenced to seven years imprisonment. Peter Mwai died of tuberculosis when he was released and deported to Uganda. I was made the villain because I put him in jail and forced him out of the country. I continue to feel the impact of the court trial, the persecution and unwanted sympathy of the public. Just when I think it will go away, it rears its ugly head again.”

I first met Peter Mwai on 23rd July 1993 - the night he infected me. It took only one encounter. Also during this night we had non-consensual sex, I was asleep and he took me - this is when I believe transmission occurred because I tore. I remember a policewoman taking my statement, and feeling shocked because this was my first 'casual' sex experience and I got the worst of all STI's.

She had had many casual sex experiences in her life and she felt guilty. I saw Peter once again in September, but there was no sexual encounter. We spoke briefly and I left the bar. I believe a mystery illness on 6th August were the first symptoms starting to appear: my sero-conversion. On 3rd October I saw his name in the newspaper and I received my positive test on the 19th.

I was told I was the only one that could stop this man from continuing to infect women around the country. The police portrayed him as an evil person intentionally spreading the virus, and so did the media.

The pressure was about being the only one in a position to stop him right at that moment. I was taken to another city, introduced to 20 women he had slept with, listened to their experiences with Peter.

Many had been raped, chased and stalked by him. At that time not one of the 20 women knew they hadHIV, only myself. Then later I met one of the women again who had tested positive. I've since met over eight other women all with similar stories of being stalked and non-consensual sex.

Before the trial my mother met the mother of a 16 year old girl who was raped by him, and infected with HIV ... she was a virgin. The police arranged for all of these meetings with other women to happen.

They knew throughout the course of the trial that I was starting to waiver and not want to follow through with it. But, as a 22 year old woman, I didn't think I had a choice. I had media chasing me around, waiting outside my house. Meanwhile Peter was portrayed as a charming snake that preyed on women. It was ridiculously blown out of proportion.

It was the young girl's story, who was a virgin, that cinched it for me. I couldn't back down after hearing what had happened to her. It destroyed her life, he destroyed her life. When I thought of her, I could do it. Some of the women became suicidal, and, at different times during the trial, I felt that way too.

“I felt like a returning war veteran…and when I got home, no one wanted to know me”

The pressure came from family, from police, from other victims, and from the public. I was spoken about on Talk Back radio, national television, ridiculed and picked apart as being a stupid girl who should have known better, or someone with low self-esteem that didn't know how to assert herself.

Some well known New Zealand public figures were asking me how big his penis was... it was crazy! The only AIDS foundation in the country had publically declared their support for Peter Mwai, and forgotten about New Zealand women. There were no support services for me. I was turned away from many agencies that were supposed to support me.

Because I was seen as 'criminalizing' the spread ofHIV, I was ostracised and labeled an outcast among other people living with HIV. I'm of indigenous New Zealand/Maori descent and even my own community stigmatized and discriminated against me during the trial.

I was an employee of the New Zealand Justice Dept, working for the District Court in Auckland. Let's just say I couldn't go back to work after he was arrested, my previous partner worked at the same courthouse and he became a witness for the prosecution.

It had a huge impact on my professional life. In subsequent employment, I've suffered stigma and discrimination in many different forms. I was unemployed for many years, and became a professional student. I prefer to work in the HIV sector because I do not have to hide anything.

I've said that I felt like a returning war veteran. I feel as if I went to war for my country, I was called a hero by some and when I got home, no one wanted to know me. No one wanted to support, acknowledge or physically be around me. I was well and truly rejected.

‘I’ve had to embrace notoriety’

The impact on me personally has been enormous. This court case was a 'test' case for New Zealand. It's referred to in many different contexts. The media still seek me out for comment today.

Criminalization is multi-faceted, it not only affects the person arrested, but his/her family and community. Impact is directly linked to stigma and discrimination. Black men in New Zealand living withHIV are immediately stigmatised as possible threats because of Peter Mwai — which indirectly affects me and my Papua New Guinean husband.

The stigma and discrimination affects the offender and the victims alike. Everybody suffers. My family was targeted. I was ostracised, and will forever live with the label of 'Peter Mwai's Victim'. Personally, I've felt criticism from fellow colleagues, and disapproval from some people living with HIV, even though I spend 80 per cent of my time advocating for people like us. It can be very disheartening. I've burst into tears, when the pressure of the persecution is too much.

Suffice to say, I have had very few sexual partners since. I have disclosed to all of them beforehand, for fear of them finding out through someone else. HIVhas altered my own sexual identity, with long periods of abstinence. I have had HIV negative partners. I enjoy the simplicity and ease of now being with someone living with HIV. Unequal relationships were always difficult, with HIV sitting in the room with us. It had a direct impact on my mental health and self esteem. No matter what you do, if one of you is living with HIV it creates an imbalance of power.

I have had more positive reactions than negative to my disclosure; this is also in non-sexual contexts. Again, because I had so little confidentiality around my disclosure I'm always surprised when I meet or see someone that doesn't know my status.

Because I was allowed no confidentiality, my entire community found out I had HIV at almost the same time I did. When I observe women that do have confidentiality I have mixed emotions about it. On one hand, I think: ‘Wouldn't it be great to control who had intimate information about me?’ and perhaps gain some small sense of a normal life, and on the other hand I see how paranoid and fearful they are in case someone finds out. And I'm grateful that I don't care about those things. Over the last five years I've learned to embrace the notoriety and use it for some advantage for Women in New Zealand or for marginalized communities like the Mãori. It doesn't mean I like it or enjoy it; I've just learnt to be detached and use it for a positive purpose.

A wake up call for New Zealand

HIV was still a death sentence in 1993. The seriousness of the charges, the way Peter was indiscriminately and recklessly infecting women all over New Zealand; these factors together with my age, my experience and horror of it all, meant I could have done nothing differently.

New Zealand was so ignorant of - and disconnected to - what HIV was doing to the rest of the world; it became a wakeup call for the average New Zealander. Peter made HIV real to the average New Zealander. Subsequently, women he had infected have come up to me over the years to say thank you, and they wish they had had the courage to stop him.

At that particular time the New Zealand AIDSFoundation were not concerned about women being at risk from HIV, nor was it widely known in New Zealand that they could be at risk. The Peter Mwai case blew this wide open, with almost weekly media coverage highlighting the plight of women and HIV for 18 months.

Therefore the AIDS Foundation chose to take the stance of defending Peter Mwai, and strongly opposing the criminalization of HIV transmission, hence the public ridiculing of the female victims. It's worth noting that 16 years later, they changed their stance completely when a bisexual man was charged with the same thing, I can only believe that this happened because the victims were female and male. That man was persecuted within the gay community.

“If I could have done anything differently, I’d have advocated for a mental health approach” 
Now, as an older and more mature woman, wisdom has come with age. I've since travelled, worked in the HIV sector, and been to Africa. As an indigenous person, I started to recognise the cultural significance or lack thereof in the trial; especially the cultural complexities facing an African man living in a Western country.

In the short time we were together (one night), he talked about death, about being a child soldier in Somalia, he showed his pain and anger about how ‘protected' and naive we are in New Zealand. When I met other African men and women living in poverty; I started to have an understanding of how the country and New Zealand women would appear to Peter Mwai.

I realized that he had very complex mental health issues that were never addressed. He would have had post-traumatic stress from his war experiences. He would have had very little value for life or people. He was also so very different to Westerners. He thought and acted differently to New Zealanders. What appeared to us as his recklessly having sex with many women regardless of consequences; could have seemed entirely something else for Peter.

Perhaps our culture was not empathetic enough to take into account the mental health aspects of his behaviour. We were definitely not equipped to cope with a situation like this, and the 'knee jerk' reaction was to lock him up.
If I could have done anything differently, I’d have advocated for a mental health approach, not only for him, but for the 'victims'. The women were left out to dry as well, and the experience had such a huge impact on our mental health and wellbeing. If New Zealand had been equipped with behavioural change services, that could perhaps have got to the root causes of his behaviour and helped him to see what he had done - he denied any wrong doing throughout the trial - without giving him the freedom to continue to infect women. I would have opted for this way of dealing with him.

“I think the answer is to provide culturally appropriate support, for both parties”

I've heard many arguments against the criminalization of HIV. And in the Pacific Islands I've witnessed at first-hand how criminalizing HIV was the worst thing to do. Reiterating what I've said previously, I believe the current law can deal effectively with someone who is the exception to the rule, and is deliberately, knowingly spreading HIV.

With the benefit of age and wisdom, I believe that all people need to take responsibility for their own sexual health and have access to safe sex resources. I do not support criminalizing people with HIV. The stigma and discrimination is already heavy to bear, let alone adding the burden of being a criminal as well.

I would support 'stopping' the rare individual that shows disregard for their sexual partners. At the same time, I would also advocate full psychological and mental health support of that person, and help with behaviour modification. The questions I've asked myself many times are: 'what makes a person do that to other people?', 'what happened to them to make them behave this way?'

Through the right therapy and evaluation, they would be able to ascertain whether it was a behaviour fault, or a psychotic episode, whatever it was, there would be a way to treat them. Locking them up just creates further problems psychologically. What are they going to do when they get out? Now we are not dying of HIVor AIDS, we are living with it. How do you manage a person like this for the rest of their life? I think the answer is to provide culturally appropriate support, for both parties.

There is a huge potential to perpetuate genderinequality with criminalization. I have two very significant concerns for men and women and how it will affect them differently. For men, it will create a biased opinion of men living with HIV - that they all intend to infect people indiscriminately. Currently only men have been prosecuted in our country. Criminalization opens the possibility of women being charged with infecting their children, or partners. We have no laws around disclosure. Currently, if you are practicing safe sex you do not have to disclose your HIV status to your partner.

‘No more legislation to create unnecessary criminals’

In my opinion, within the indigenous populations, there will be a decrease in testing. People will prefer not to be tested and therefore not able to be held responsible for those they may have infected. Therefore in the public health context there will be more infections, more people living with HIV and not knowing their status. There will be an unnecessary increase in AIDS related deaths. As it is, Maori have the highest rate of 'late testers' now.

Again, I say we already have criminal laws to cope with someone that is intentionally spreading a disease; we do not need any more legislation to create unnecessary criminals. If the government used criminalization as a last resort to stop the spread of the disease, I would advocate strongly for anti-stigma and discrimination legislation to protect those living with HIV.

Human rights awareness is great in theory, but still has a long way to go in practice. All human rights should be equal - absolutely the same - the same for someone who is living with HIV, as it is for someone who isn't.