LGBT Africans demand action on AIDS pandemic ahead of international conference

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Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people from more than 25 African countries have demanded an urgent response to the HIV pandemic affecting their communities.

They met at a special conference in Dhaka ahead of the International Conference on AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Infections in Africa (ICASA).

According to the ICASA organisers, for more than two decades, the African continent has participated in the fight against AIDS and provided potential solutions to the numerous challenges posed by this epidemic.

The conference “brings together international and African experts to evaluate the current state of the HIV and STI epidemics with regard to science, communities, and leadership.”

Senegal, where the conference is being held, the prevalence of HIV infection among men who have sex with men is 21% versus less than 1% for the total population.

“The deliberate refusal to address the needs of men who have sex with men in Africa or anywhere in the world will never help us end the spread of AIDS,” said Paula Ettelbrick, Executive Director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), the organisers of the pre-conference.

“The refusal to treat the health needs of this population blatantly defies the human rights obligations incumbent on states.”

Men who have sex with men in Africa are nine times more likely to be HIV positive than their heterosexual counterparts.

IGLHRC reports that only seven African countries have included MSM in their national plans for AIDS prevention, and among these countries only South Africa has made the commitment to include women who have sex with women as part of its response to addressing the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

“The gendered nature of the limited interventions seeking to address LGBTI people’s needs on the African continent aggravates the situation even further,” said Fikile Vilakazi, Director of the Coalition of African Lesbians.

More than two-thirds of African nations have laws punishing same-sex conduct.

Among the LGBT groups backing the call for action are the Coalition of African Lesbians (CAL), Alternatives-Cameroun, Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya (GALCK), Lesbians, Gays and Bisexuals of Botswana (LEGABIBO), Sexual Minorities of Uganda (SMUG) and the African HIV Policy Network.

The Burundi National Assembly voted to amend the country’s penal code last month so that, for the first time, sexual acts between persons of the same sex would be prohibited.

The proposed new law, the first to ban gay sex in Burundi, will now be considered in the country’s Senate.

Gays and lesbians face three months to two years in jail and a fine.

The criminalisation of homosexuality makes HIV prevention work more difficult according to Jeffrey O,Malley, the director of the United Nations Development Programme on HIV/AIDS.

“Until we acknowledge these behaviours and work with people involved with these behaviours, we are not going to halt and reverse the HIV epidemic,” he said.

“Countries which protect men who have sex with men have double the rate of coverage of HIV prevention services, as much as 60%.”