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Homophobia fuelling HIV infections

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RECENT statistics from the Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (Galz) that the prevalence rate among the gay population is above the national figure make scary reading and calls for a balancing act to “appease the moral crusades” and at the same time ensure all the taps on HIV infection are closed

BY PHYLLIS MBANJE

The gay population is disproportionately burdened by HIV infection, a situation which is worsened by laws that penalise same-sex intercourse and contribute to a cycle of stigma, homonegativity and discrimination.

In many African countries, laws criminalising homosexuality may be fuelling the epidemic, as they dissuade key populations from seeking treatment and health care providers from offering it.

Zimbabwe is one of the countries where homosexuality is contra bonos mores (against societal values) and there is widespread homophobia (range of negative attitudes and feelings toward homosexuality or people who are identified or perceived as being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT).

However, recent reports shared by Galz suggest that the prevalence is reportedly rising among the gay population, with at least 32,8% of women, who have sex with other women and 28% of men, who have sex with other men being HIV positive.

Zimbabwe criminalises same sex marriages. Even though the new Constitution guarantees rights such as equality and non-discrimination, it is silent on specific rights for LGBTI community.

It is against this background that a balancing act is now required. This is most critical in the face of reports that most of the members of the gay population are living double standards meaning some of them are in “normal” relationships, but secretly have same sex partners.

Chester Samba from Galz said it was important not to leave anyone behind in the fight against HIV and Aids.

“There are efforts to address this (closing the taps), however, this needs to be supported by strong political will,” he said. Samba said there are some attitudes of healthcare workers that drive away communities seeking care.

“As part of the Global Fund programme, a key focus would be training of healthcare workers on working with key populations,” he said.

Galz programmes officer, Sylvester Nyamatendedza, at a recent meeting, shared that accessing basic health needs for the gay population remained a huge challenge due to stigma and discrimination from the community and health workers.

Last year, National Aids Council (Nac) chief executive officer, Tapiwa Magure, responding to allegations that the gay community would be snubbed during World Aids Day commemorations, said they had an all inclusive policy, which was not discriminatory.

“We are opposed to discrimination of any kind … we even host key populations forum at Nac,” he said.

The Global Fund grant for 2018 to 2020 has a component of $19 million for key populations, which include the gay population.

Former President Robert Mugabe was well known for his distaste for the community and at several platforms referred to them as “worse than pigs and dogs”.

During the Aids conference in 2015, attendees expressed great concern at being closed out, particularly on accessing both information and health services.

Health minister David Parirenyatwa is on record saying all taps on HIV infection must be closed and that is the only way to halt further spread of the disease. So are they hopeful about the new political dispensation?

Samba said there were some legal challenges that require strong political will and commitment to work on this.

“Our sector needs to engage the government and we are in the process,” he said. According to research by Global Health Action in 21 African countries, Zimbabwe included, anti-homosexuality laws act to restrict access to services and limit provider efficacy, whether intentionally or not.

Widely held negative views about gay men and men who have sex with men in Africa, even among health care workers and academics associated with HIV care and research, have restricted optimal support and care for African men who have sex with men, or even research on their behalf.

Criminalisation reinforces those negative views, undermines care and research, and fuels the epidemic.

The researchers concluded that, while the United States government has condemned African anti-homosexuality legislation in stand-alone statements, but it has not directly tied such legislation to the effects on the HIV epidemic.

They also determined that while PEPFAR has acknowledged the negative role of stigma in fuelling the HIV epidemic, it has, so far, missed opportunities to explicitly address the role of criminalisation in feeding stigmatising attitudes.

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