Stigma, sex laws contribute to HIV spread

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Despite its controversial nature in a country where the practice remains illegal health professionals met with gay rights activists on December 5.

The meeting’s motto was “Stigma + discrimination equals new infections among gay men in Africa,” and it showcased experiences of two advocate organizations that are promoting the rights of men who have sex with Men (MSM).

 

The session was organized by a network named “Africagay contre le sida” a group of 14 African HIV/AIDS organizations engaged in MSM issues who presented the gay experience vis-à-vis national governments and the pandemic from the North African Maghreb country of Tunisia and Francophone West African country of Cameroon.

Doctor Ying-Ru Lo, a prevention coordinator with the HIV/AIDS department of WHO said people who are gay have a right to treatment and to have their well being ensured. She forcefully said those who forbid sessions addressing gay issues should be forbidden from ICASA.

She argued that gay people in developing countries were twenty times more likely than the general population to acquire HIV/AIDS.  She pointed to a study in which 20 percent of people with HIV/AIDS in Senegal were infected through same gender sexual relations. However, 82 percent of them reported having sexual intercourse with women as well. Similarly, 50 percent of new cases of HIV infection in Nigeria are through men having sex with men but half of them reported having relationships with women as well. As a result not addressing MSM issues makes it difficult to control the spread of HIV/AIDS and yet it is difficult to adequately reach these people because of laws against this behavior, which over 75 countries presently have.

She hopes for guidelines for reaching out to people who are gay and transgender (people who biologically change their gender) community. She believes international law as well as moral and human rights should allow all people to be treated with dignity and receive health services and be free from discrimination as well as be allowed the right of privacy.

Targeted information to implement sensitization strategies to improve advice on Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STIs) and HIV/AIDS and education on anal rectal treatment to prevent STIs will help to prevent transmission of the disease, she argued.

Hassen Hanini, an advocate for vulnerable populations at the Tunisian CCM-Association de lutte contre les MST/Sida (section Tunis), a Tunisian homosexual rights advocate organization, founded in 2004, says his country has a high STI rate.

Hassen said his country, which is the birth place of the Arab spring, has many people who practice high risk behaviors; with almost 30 percent of the population being in the 15-29 age bracket, as well as an ageing marriage age of 32.4, high consumption of intravenous drug and a developing sex industry as well as a decrease in the use of condoms.

However he said because of the stigma associated with the diseases MSM’s have a higher chance of contracting the disease according to WHO data from 2009 which showed the MSM HIV/AIDS prevalence rate at 4.9 percent compared to the national average of 0.01 percent. The first confirmed HIV infection in Tunisia was in 1985. Because of stigma and legal issues it is hard for them to conduct research. Currently same gender sex in Tunisia carries a two year prison sentence.

Things may be changing after the January revolution now his group has been licensed and a new group called RANA is being launched. Now the organization plans another study on the population next year. However, he said mobilizing resources and getting people to respond because of the social stigma and discrimination make it challenging.

Mr. Parfait Behen, president of the association Alternatives Cameroon which fights for gay rights in Cameroon, said life is difficult for people who are gay there. Cameroon has a clause in the criminal code mandating a six year prison sentence and a fine of 20 thousand CFA francs for anybody found engaging in homosexual acts.

He cited religious leaders and media outlets that feed homophobic speeches and demonize people as well as groups that publish purported lists of gay people in newspapers.

He also cited people who were imprisoned for “looking gay” engaging in “homosexual ways and acts” as well as harassment by the police forces on homosexual meetings with the goal of undermining people and stigmatizing them though the family and society in general.

Using health to overcome barriers, improving knowledge on how HIV is transmitted are the major strategies for preventing the disease.