Outright Activism as ICASA 2015 Starts with Violations and Silence on Key Populations

December 1, 2015

Many activists arriving at the airport in Harare, Zimbabwe for the International Conference on AIDS and STIs in Africa (ICASA) saw familiar faces, greeted far-flung comrades and headed for the passport desk and baggage claim expecting this meeting to be like others in the past—a chance to share strategy, recharge and set priorities for the coming year in dialogues led by and for Africans and their allies.

Instead, even before exiting the airport, things took an unexpected turn: sex workers, gay men and transgender women and even activists who just “looked different” reported having materials confiscated, being personally detained, having their passports held and being charged duties to reclaim their posters and educational materials.

At the conference venue, trouble continued. UNAIDS head Michel Sidibé opened the conference with remarks that, while stirring, made no mention of “key populations”, including gay men and other MSM, transwomen, sex workers and others. This prompted a sign-on statement asking Dr. Sidibé to “Walk the Talk”, of the messages of support he gives these groups behind closed doors.

Dr. Sidibé and UNAIDS listened, and when he officially opened the Community Village on November 30th, he said, “Key populations are helping us to break the conspiracy of silence.” The full statement UNAIDS made on this issue can be read here.

Unfortunately, discrimination and challenges have continued at the very gathering that should, and indeed must, be a safe space for everyone working on HIV. Here are some additional voices from the frontlines:

Micheal Ighodaro (AVAC): Coming here I was expecting [ICASA] to be the standard it was before. At the ICASA conference in Addis, we were allowed to come and go freely. Here, materials were detained and MSM and transgender people were questioned regarding the content of their materials. My materials were detained at the airport for the Key Populations Preconference. While that issue has been resolved, ICASA organizers did not apologize at the opening for what everyone has had to go through simply to get their materials to the conference. I thought most ICASA organizers would have known better.

Regarding key populations at the conference, people weren’t sure it would be safe to attend. People are more scared after all that they are seeing. I met some friends following a day of sessions and the restaurant made an announcement soon after we’d arrived stating, “No more sex workers here.” No one I was with was holding hands or doing anything to attract attention. I’m more concerned and angry, I was expecting to see better both at ICASA and in the country. We tried to have t-shirts printed with #WalktheTalk; however, the printer here in Harare refused to print them since some of the designs include “MSM” and “sex worker” on them.

Carolyn Njoroge (Kenya Alliance of Sex Workers): On arrival to Harare there was a lot of screening and questions, asking what we came to do, if we were coming for ICASA as part of a group. They opened our bags and everything we had that included the words, “sex worker”, including my poster presentation on advocating for rollout of PrEP for male and female sex workers, our t-shirts and all other materials, was confiscated. Additionally, three transgender people were locked in a room and their passports were taken away. We reached out to the African coordinator for ICASA and they were eventually released.

We were told that the laws in Zimbabwe do not allow that sex work can be practiced—according to “regulations and morals”. All our materials were left at the airport and we had to pay to get them released. They were finally released this morning [Monday], after originally being told we could not bring them into the country but could only get them on our way out of the country.

When we got here this morning, the conference organizers had removed everything that said “sex workers” from our booth in the Community Village and told us we had to call ourselves, “Key Population S” and “Key Population M” [for MSM]. After we said no, they decided we did not need to do this, but did move us to the back tent. [The Village is a series of three tents connected through small walkways. The Sex Worker Zone and MSM Zone are in the last tent].

At the hotel, we gave our passports when checking in and I was asked what I had come to do. I told them I was with ICASA, and they asked with whom. I told them I was supported by the African Sex Workers Alliance and am a sex worker from Kenya. They told me the hotel had regulations—no wearing of miniskirts and shorts past 6:00 pm, no looking at people like you want to solicit, no wearing indecent clothes, we can’t go out late and come back late. When we booked at the hotel they saw who we are affiliated with, why did they agree to let us stay there?

Police arrested a male sex worker at the Sex Worker Zone booth. The officer was not wearing a uniform and came in with the purpose of getting a sex worker to agree to sex. We are scared and trying to travel together to and from the conference, or stay in our hotel rooms.

If the government of Zimbabwe agreed to host ICASA, they knew it would bring people from diverse populations. Why did they agree to host?

What can you do?

  • Become an ally to LGBT and sex worker groups in your country—contact AVAC for more information.
  • Email anyone you know at ICASA asking them to call on speakers to state, in their opening remarks: “I stand in solidarity with African key populations: sex workers, men who have sex with men, trans diverse persons, people who use drugs and all people living with HIV. Protecting their rights is essential to the fight to end AIDS.” (This statement was developed by civil society groups representing key populations.)