AIDS Continues to Spread at an Alarming Rate Among LGBT Africans

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Micheal Ighodaro, a policy and program assistant with the Aids Vaccine Advocacy Coalition, was among 50 activists who participated in a U.N. advocacy delegation hosted in December by the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. He wrote the following perspective about facilitating the HIV/AIDS discussions during the activist planning sessions and as part of the group that visited UNICEF, UNDP and UNIADS. Micheal, who is from Nigeria, was a fellow with IGLHRC last summer.

Last week, The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission(IGLHRC) brought together more than 50 LGBT activists from around the world in New York City to mark this year’s International Human Rights Day. The delegation included 10 activists from Zambia, Egypt, Cameroon, Nigeria, Zimbabwe and South Africa, as well as other activist from Asia, South America and the Caribbean. The group attended several UN agency meetings and met with member states to raise their voices about the issues most important to them.

In these sessions the activists shared their lack of full understanding of the different UNAIDS targets and lack of African LGBT representation during development of these targets.

Despite gains in controlling the spread of HIV in Africa, the disease has continued to spread at an alarming rate among its LGBT communities. This, the activists say, is becoming even more severe. They report that HIV programs targeting gay men are only available in big cities and do not reach the many men living in rural areas.

Many of the activists argued that a majority of the funding their organizations receives for HIV-related programs cannot be used for human rights or security advocacy. Conversely, rights-focused funding usually does not allow for provision of HIV prevention and treatment services. They noted that this has greatly increased the division of rights and HIV. They agreed that it is important for both rights and HIV to be linked as one. Funding for HIV needs to include security and human rights advocacy and also, most importantly, there shouldn’t be a division of rights advocates and HIV advocates as we are all promoters for the good of our communities.

The need for inclusion of transgender HIV programming in Africa was raised. The representative from a transgender advocacy organization stated that they are left behind in service provision and research. Little to nothing is known about HIV transmission among trans communities in Africa. What is known, however, is that transgender women are 49 times (yes, 49!) more likely to have HIV compared to their general population counterparts. They asked for specific attention to the trans community in all approaches.

The need for research on gay men living with HIV in Africa was raised by an MSM group. Little to nothing is known about this population except that their HIV risks are 19 times higher than those in the general population. The double stigma has limited many of them from accessing health care services. One culprit they cite is the lack of engagement by the national and international communities of people living with HIV.

Many of the delegates were specifically concerned about the new Global Fund and PEPFAR funding models. They agreed there are new opportunities but there are also many challenges around national governments implementing HIV services for gay and transgender communities in the context of criminalization of these very communities.

There is need for proper monitoring by Global Fund and PEPFAR to ensure money earmarked for LGBT HIV services is actually funding such programs. This will be a tall order as delegates emphasized the lack of meaningful engagement from their national governments. This support is key to ensuring seamless and quality services for key populations.

Many of the LGBT delegates’ concerns are not different from what many activists from Africa have been asking for in the last decade: Meaningful engagement by national governments and international agencies; LGBT adolescent research and programing; specific transgender programs that do not count them as MSM; unified funding that addresses both rights and HIV; and research on HIV among lesbians in Africa.

As an advocate who has been involved in HIV and rights advocacy in Africa for many years, I have experienced and witnessed heightened HIV vulnerability among LGBTs in all its ugly manifestations. Only when we activists succeed in uniting our struggle for sexual minorities with access to HIV treatment and prevention will we succeed in either.