As World AIDS Day Approaches: A sad day for LGBT rights in Africa

November 25, 2014

AVAC Policy and Program Assistant Micheal Ighodaro is a Nigerian-born LGBT advocate and activist, reflecting here on the core challenges to human rights and dignity embodied in legislation that criminalizes homosexuality and HIV status.

As the world prepares to mark this year’s World AIDS Day next Monday, December 1st, we should celebrate our achievements and also recognize the many setbacks that we have to deal with to achieve a world truly free of AIDS.

We know that human rights are fundamental to an effective HIV response—and to the health of all people, everywhere. Yet there continue to be serious attacks on these rights.

Just last week President Yahya Jammeh of the Gambia, signed a bill into law that can impose life imprisonment for some homosexual acts. The new law focuses on “aggravated homosexuality”, a term borrowed from the Ugandan bill that passed earlier this year and was recently overturned on procedural grounds.

The Gambian law targets “serial offenders” and people living with HIV or AIDS. The law also criminalizes the parent or guardian of homosexuals—holding those “in authority over” minors liable for their behavior. People found guilty of “aggravated homosexuality” can be sentenced to life in prison.

This year during the International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, an abstract presentation on a research study conducted with gay men and other men who have sex with men (MSM) in the Gambia showed evidence that, as in other West Africa countries, MSM in the Gambia are an underserved population at high risk of HIV and lack sufficient HIV prevention, treatment, and care services. The study found that 20 of the 205 men (9.8%) in the study were HIV-positive, with the highest prevalence in men older than 25 (22.9%, 8 of 35 men). UNAIDS estimates that Gambia has an overall HIV prevalence of 1.3% among 15- to 49-year-olds.

This new law will jeopardize the health and well-being of LGBT individuals in the Gambia. In every country where this type of legislation has passed, there are reports of MSM avoiding health services, including HIV testing, treatment and prevention. And always there’s the ongoing risk of violence from police, family, community—that puts everyone’s life in danger. There are already more than 30 countries in sub-Saharan Africa that criminalize homosexual activity.

Earlier this year, Nigeria passed a similar law  mandating a 14-year prison sentence for anyone entering a same-sex union, and a 10-year term for a person or group supporting gay clubs, societies, organizations, processions or meetings. Public displays of affection by gay men and lesbians are also illegal. There are also ongoing concerns that the recently overturned Ugandan law will be brought up again in Parliament.

Civil society groups and AIDS and LGBT activists around the world have been working to change attitudes and laws that hurt people and public health. This work cuts across agendas of human rights, HIV, law and health. It is fundamental to biomedical prevention. In a video interview earlier this year, AVAC Executive Director Mitchell Warren spoke about the excitement in HIV prevention science and the lack of progress on rights.

The elegance of the science is remarkable, but even if everything happened exactly right scientifically, if we don’t deal with that fundamental reality of stigma, discrimination, criminalization, we will never end the epidemic. And that’s what the challenge is.

This is our collective challenge.  All the targets and great tools that we have will all amount to nothing if we don’t address the growing homophobia manifested by antigay laws in Africa and elsewhere around teh world.

There are challenges to figuring out how to take action—especially for advocates and activists working outside of the countries where these laws are being passed. I myself now work and live in the United States—and am working with groups here to develop strategic responses in solidarity with and support of the agendas of my African brothers and sisters fighting these laws on the ground.

As soon as the law passed, I reached out to Fatou Camara, a former press secretary for the president of the Gambia, who now lives in the US. As the US State Department referenced earlier today, Camara has reported that several gay men have already been arrested and held under this new law, without being charged with an offense. Ms. Camara said the focus should be on getting those arrested out of custody and providing legal support to activists on the ground. Over the long term, it will be key to support activists on the ground to organize and challenge the law constitutionally.

As we approach World AIDS Day, our thoughts are with the LGBT community in Gambia. Today I ask the AIDS community to stop and reflect and think about the LGBT community in Gambia, Uganda, Nigeria and other parts of the world where laws like this are springing up. Let’s think about access to fundamental human rights: the right to health, to life, to freedom of expression. All our efforts to end AIDS epidemic in the coming years will all come to nothing if these laws continue.

AVAC has been working with LGBT groups in the US and around the world on ways to create shared agendas for LGBT advocacy and public health. AVAC will continue to advocate for the repeal of laws that hinders access to HIV prevention services for all population. To learn more about what we are doing visit our “Strategic Initiatives” page  and to receive updates in your inbox, please join our Advocates’ Network. Stay tuned—and stay in touch.