- December 1, 2013
Post submitted by Jane WothayaThirikwa, HRC Global Engagement Fellow
Two years ago, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) declared that “Getting to Zero” would be the theme of World AIDS Day until 2015. Their decision reflected the simple fact that we are closer than we ever have been to achieving an AIDS-free generation. But even as we near what many consider to be the end of the global HIV/AIDS epidemic, it is important we not lose sight of the people and places that have been hit particularly hard by the disease.
The silence around HIV/AIDS and its impact on the LGBT community in Africa must be broken. While there have been verbal and sometimes policy-level commitment by African governments regarding equal access to HIV treatment, care and prevention, LGBT Africans are left out of the picture more often than not. Unfortunately, the mere mention of LGBT persons in Africa is often dismissed by religious clergy, politicians and cultural leaders. They falsely accuse human rights activists and public health practitioners as “being influenced by the West” and/or "paid HIV peddlers and moral decadents.”
It is this type of cultural, religious and political resistance that has long driven the high prevalence of HIV/AIDS in Africa. This unwillingness to accept sexual and gender minority persons in Africa has generated profound stigma and societal hostility, thus making LGBT Africans extremely difficult to reach.
We can no longer sit by and watch the number of HIV infections rise among lesbian and bisexual women in Africa. A recent study entitled Forced Sexual Experiences as Risk Factor for Self-Reported HIV Infection among Southern African Lesbian and Bisexual Women found out that 10% of women who have sex with women in four southern African countries are HIV positive. The study suggests the main source of infection among lesbians is likely ‘corrective or curative’ rape. The trauma these woman face once they have been attacked is often compounded when they seek help from police or health care workers, which keeps them from getting tested or treated for HIV.
As religious and cultural fundamentalists continue defending what they term “moral values”, they seem far removed from the lived experiences of the very people for whom they claim to speak. Like a baobab tree whose large base is the cornerstone of a society, these self-proclaimed and often privileged “watchdogs” fail to see, or choose to ignore, how the base of the tree has lost some of its foundation.
Thankfully, there are reasons to be optimistic. The 17th International Conference on AIDS and STIs in Africa (ICASA) conference will take place in South Africa December 7th through the 11th. The conference will bring together approximately 10,000 participants, including leading scientists, policy makers, activists, persons living positively with HIV and government leaders.
LGBT persons from across the African continent constitute a significant percentage of the conference each year. While we should be on the lookout for promises to curb HIV/AIDS by those African governments in attendance, it is still painfully ironic that of the 77 countries that still have punitive laws against same-sex conduct, 37 of them are African states. These punitive laws do nothing but validate the stigmatization of persons affected by, and infected with, HIV.
On this anniversary of World AIDS Day, it is important for us to remember that we all share a common humanity. If we are not careful, the indifference and inaction of those who should, and can act, will overshadow any progress we might hope to make. It is important for us to change the narrative concerning HIV/AIDS in Africa.
I am proud to be one of the many African voices calling for justice when and where it matters most for the African people.