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Sexual Rights for Sexual Minorities

Voices of Our Future correspondent Gertrude F. Pswarayi exposes Zimbabwe's attacks on sexual minorities and imagines a more just future for the gay and lesbian citizens of her homeland.

"Zimbabweans need to stand up to President Mugabe and call for the decriminalization of sex work and the recognition of the rights of gays and lesbians."

Irked by growing dissent from all sectors of the population, President Robert Gabriel Mugabe, the 29-year leader of Zimbabwe, vented his anger towards a gay rights group that had made calls for constitutional reforms. President Mugabe’s response was to call for the arrest of anyone "caught practicing homosexuality." This statement has dealt a body blow to Zimbabwe’s attempts at achieving universal access to sexual and reproductive health and rights.

“Lesbians and gays are ‘sexual perverts‘ who are ‘lower than dogs and pigs,’” said Mr. Mugabe.

The gullible state-controlled media joined the fray, castigating homosexuals. Scores of innocent citizens have fled the country after being exposed as gays or lesbians. Some have resigned from government employment, including Mr. Alum Mpofu, chief executive officer of the country’s sole broadcaster, Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corp. Mpofu resigned in 2002 after being caught in a compromising position with a male partner.

The consequences of President Mugabe’s statements are there for everyone to see. Homophobia has resulted in the exclusion of sexual minorities in Zimbabwe from development programs. One such program is the Maputo Plan of Action (MPoA) for Universal Access to Comprehensive Sexual and Reproductive Health Services.

Dr. David Parirenyatwa, former health minister and one of President Mugabe’s right hand men, represented Zimbabwe in Maputo and endorsed the document with other health ministers in Africa. Fearing President Mugabe’s hatred of homosexuals, Dr. Parirenyatwa deliberately ignored sexual minorities in the Zimbabwe National Maternal and Neonatal Health Road Map. The road map, adopted to achieve MPoA goals, fails to acknowledge the existence of homosexuals and sex workers and it does not address their sexual and reproductive health challenges.

The Zimbabwe Republic Police, a partisan force, has also taken a cue from President Mugabe’s statements against gays. Arbitrary arrests and detention using draconian legislation have been used to harass gays. For instance, it is an offense for two people of the same sex to hold hands, hug, or kiss under Zimbabwe’s Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act [Chapter 9.23], Act 23/2004. The Miscellaneous Offences Act is used to arrest sex workers for “loitering for the purpose of solicitation for prostitution.”

Homophobia is rampant in the health sector. During a public discussion meeting for medical doctors, one doctor said that he felt uncomfortable providing medical services to sex workers and gays.

Comments by medical doctors are just the tip of the iceberg and provide a general insight into Zimbabwean society. Gays, lesbians, and sex workers have limited access to sexual and reproductive health services and care because they live in constant fear of violence, stigma, and discrimination.

The Anglican Church is facing problems globally over the ordination of gay bishops and this issue has ignited violent demonstrations and squabbles in Zimbabwe. Reverend Nolbert Kunonga, after being charged of violating the church’s constitution, turned tables against his accusers. Kunonga, who is related to President Mugabe, alleged that his opponents were gays seeking to oust him because he was straight. What was a simple case of impropriation turned into a political fiasco as President Mugabe brought in anti-riot police officers to back up Kunonga.

Scores of Zimbabweans were beaten up, arrested, and detained. Those who were backing Kunonga attended church services under heavy security guard. For some time, Anglican churches in Zimbabwe became temporary garrisons.

President Mugabe’s statements on gays will continue to hound many sectors of Zimbabwean life. No one in government can stand up to challenge his statements. Zimbabwe needs to develop a clear plan of action to achieve goals set in the MPoA without taking into consideration the president’s ill-advised statements.

Zimbabweans need to stand up to President Mugabe and call for the decriminalization of sex work and the recognition of the rights of gays and lesbians to enable them to receive the highest attainable standard of sexual health, including access to sexual and reproductive health care services. This can be achieved through rectifying laws that undermine the rights of minority groups. The Ministry of Health and the civil society need to provide training to medical staff on providing health services to minority groups.

About Gertrude F. Pswarayi

Gertrude F. Pswarayi is a World Pulse Voices of Our Future Correspondent from Zimbabwe. This editorial originally appeared on PulseWire as part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, a World Pulse training program providing rigorous web 2.0 and new media training to 31 emerging women leaders. Edits have been made to the original text for clarity.

PulseWire Connect with Gertrude F. Pswarayi on PulseWire.

Comments

A battle against AIDS in Pakistan
The battle against HIV and AIDS in Pakistan is winnable. The epidemic can be controlled and reversed. There are documented good examples in country of targeted interventions that have resulted in stopping HIV transmission and reducing HIV prevalence in communities at risk. These examples need to be replicated to avert new infections, help communities at risk protect themselves from the virus and stop the virus from spreading further. This battle against HIV and AIDS will be lost if we deny the presence and spread of HIV in Pakistan and underestimate the consequences it can have if it spills beyond communities at risk into the general population. It can be won if we accept it exists and act fast by focusing on the right front with the right tools and hardware.

In addition to helping those already infected, our primary focus at this stage should be to prevent its further transmission among identified communities that are most at risk. At risk due to behaviours and practices that increase exposure to the virus. There is evidence that in Pakistan, communities of street-based persons injecting drugs, male and female sex workers and communities of Hijras engaged in injecting drug use and/or unprotected sex are most at risk of HIV transmission. Risks of exposure to the virus among these communities can be drastically reduced and minimized by providing these communities with the correct information and tools to protect themselves and associated persons at risk. The HIV virus is transmitted through infected blood, unprotected sex with an infected partner and from an HIV infected mother to her child.

In Pakistan, HIV prevalence is the highest among street-based persons who inject licit (pharmaceutical injections) or illicit (heroin and morphine) drugs compared to other identified high risk groups. Of the estimated half a million chronic opiate/heroin users in Pakistan more than 100,000 have shifted to injecting drugs in the recent past. The National HIV prevalence among this most at risk group is alarmingly above 20 percent and increasing. However, there are cities in Pakistan where above 50 percent of the persons who inject drugs are already infected with HIV. Transmission in this group is high because of sharing of infected syringes among people injecting drugs, the most efficient way of transmission of any blood borne virus like Hepatitis C.

Transmission is high in persons who inject drugs as majority has not heard of HIV and AIDS. Those that have heard of HFV do not know how it is transmitted hence do not know how to protect themselves from the virus. And those that know do not have the resources or means to access or buy sterile syringes or needles to inject safely and protect themselves. Recent reports also indicate that the shift to injecting drugs is happening at an earlier age, which will result in HIV transmission among groups of homeless street children. This is a dangerous trend and will have devastating consequences for young people.

Street-based persons who inject drugs are often considered an isolated community that does not interact with the general population, hence often considered an insignificant vector of HIV infection to the general community. This is incorrect.

First of all over 99 percent are men of which 50 percent are married with an average of four children per family. There is documented evidence in Pakistan of transmission from infected husbands to their wives due to unprotected regular sex and from the infected mothers to new born babies.

There is also an overlap where infection can be transmitted between people who inject drugs and the general commun0ity. This overlap happens in health care facilities accessed both by people who inject drugs and the general community especially where the quality of bio safety measures are inferior, particularly the use of non-sterile injections and/or surgical instruments. In jails where people who inject drugs share infected syringes with jail inmates. Places where sex workers have unprotected sex with people who inject drugs and customers from the general community.

What must and can we do? We can learn from good examples in country, fight the battle against HIV and AIDS and win the battle! A good example to learn from and replicate is the Comprehensive HIV prevention programme for people injecting drugs initiated in 2005 by The Punjab AIDS Control Programme of the Department of Health of the Government of Punjab, supported by the World Bank in a public-private partnership with a national nonprofit organisation in Lahore, Faisalabad, Sargodha and Sialkot.

This scaled up; uninterrupted and consistent service delivery has halted and reversed the prevalence of HIV among communities of street based persons injecting drugs.

This fact has been evidenced, recorded, documented, monitored and evaluated by the National AIDS Control Programme, the World Bank and key UN agencies. As a result the programme is now being expanded to an additional eight cities of Punjab.

In order to block and reverse the epidemic at least 80 percent of the estimated 100,000 street-based persons must have regular access to similar comprehensive HIV prevention services. The national coverage by the end of 2009 will be approximately 28 percent for which services in the Punjab alone account for 22 percent. There is still a gap and an immediate need for an expanded response by scaling up services to reach 80 percent.

Prevention is better than cure. Every rupee spent at this stage will save thousands of lives and save millions of rupees in the future. The battle against HIV and AIDS in Pakistan needs leadership at all levels to seriously engage and commit resources to prevent further transmission, help those already infected and win the battle. Fighting and winning this battle is the responsibility of every Pakistani.

On behalf of civil society, persons already infected with HIV, people who inject drugs and their families we would urge provincial and national leadership in particular parliamentarians and related govt departments to ‘fast track’ the proposed scale up and prevent a highly stigmatized, devastating and complicated disease from affecting communities already crippled by poverty and injustice.

ASHFAQ REHMANI
Organizer
Youth & Women Empowerment Society

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