HIV: God Cleansing Ethiopia?

Addis Ababa, Friday, December 14, 2018– Alemu (a pseudonym) and his friends were in a hospital taking care of their HIV positive friend who was admitted for opportunistic diseases in Addis Ababa a couple of months ago. Unfortunately, the capital of the country with relative understanding of healthcare need and compassion failed to do just that for one of its own, because of lack of proper treatment, he was not lucky enough to live his dreams. His life was cut short just at the age of 25.

Alemu and his friends now mourn their loss. The sadness grows deeper when more and more people are suffering and losing their lives for the lack of treatment or even proper support.  

“The moment they realized the patient was a homosexual, their approach changed. They immediately started mistreating him. Instead of treating the patient, they said, he deserved what he got. He is a sinner and that is how sinners should get treated”, Alemu said enraged and broken.

There is a wave of hope and optimism in Ethiopia at the moment. The government has given space to conversation and freedom of expression. With new, young and vibrant officials in influential government offices, the reform process of a country envisioned to be amongst the most democratic and middle income countries in the world is aggressively ongoing. There is, however, still no mention of or even any indication that the government will make the LGBTIQA+ community in Ethiopia part of its reform agenda, neither as beneficiaries nor as drivers of change.

The community now feels that things are getting worse and providing relief to those who are anti-homosexual, just last week when Ethiopia published a revised HIV/AIDS road map 2018-2020, yet again excluding the LGBTIQA+ community.  

As BMC Infectious Diseases, an open access, peer-reviewed journal report on Trend of HIV/AIDS for the last 26 years and predicting achievement of the 90–90-90 HIV prevention targets by 2020 in Ethiopia: a time series analysis indicates;

“Achievement of these targets by 2020 is helpful for elimination of HIV/AIDS epidemic in 2030. However, achieving or approaching to achieve these targets highly depends on the trend of HIV/AIDS infection in the previous years, the burden of the disease, commitment and capacity of the leaders and implementation of the designed strategies to achieve the target”.

But because Ethiopian law criminalizes homosexuality, the government as well as the public dissuades key populations from seeking treatment, and health care providers from offering it; this plan is likely to fail. Same-sex consensual activity is punishable up to 15 years for convicted offenders. Anyone found guilty of transmitting HIV/AIDS through same-sex sexual conduct is liable to serving up to 25 years in prison.  

Some scholars and gay activist argue that criminalizing homosexuality prevents gays and lesbians from seeking medical help or counseling in case of suspected sexually transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS for fear of prosecution. For instance, in Ethiopia, the HIV/AIDS protection program and medical experts seem to ignore the implication of excluding homosexual persons from protection and care programs, which might have direct or indirect link to the general population wellbeing.   

“The fact is we don’t know the impact of HIV prevalence amongst LGBT+ community because there is no recognition- so no research. But there’s no reason to believe it is lower than the very high rates in the rest of East Africa. How Ethiopia differs from our neighbors in this prospect is that there is much less knowledge within the community about HIV/AIDS and unavailability of help”, Beky Abiy, co-founder of DANA Social Club, an informal collective that advocates for LGBTIQA+ rights, said, in an interview  http://http://spl.ids.ac.uk/blog/interview-beki-abi-dana-social-club-ethiopia

The country is driven mostly by religion, tradition and general consensus on everything, hence Ethiopians DO NOT ACKNOWLEGDE THE EXISTENCE OF THE COMMUNITY. This ignorance and negligence coupled with winning votes and support from the public led the government to completely ignore the major rights of this key part of the population is supposed to be provided equally with the rest of the population.

Alas, these sad incidents never end. Another gay man who unfortunately needed immediate help went to a clinic to get treated for an anal fissure. The nurses treated him but to satisfy their homophobia they stitched him without anesthesia saying that that is what he gets when he practices sodomy. They told their peers and everyone laughed at him, leading him to a never ending physical and psychological suffering.

Gay men and other men who have sex with men are disproportionately burdened by HIV infection. Laws that penalize same-sex intercourse contribute to a cycle of stigma, homo-negativity and discrimination because of the way the community is treated.

If the government wants to achieve the newly crafted plan it needs to include the LGBTIQA+ community. In a country where buying a condom even for heterosexual couples is a taboo and where there is no available protection for the LGBT community, there needs to be a better approach. Everyone should be angry and demand for equal rights of this neglected but also very much alive and existent part of the population the same way.

“Ethiopia continues to be deliberately leaving us behind, so congratulations on your delusional /empty fornication/ homophobic /Trans-phobic discriminatory plan. As long as Ethiopia continues disregarding its Queer Community, HIV/AIDS will never be eradicated”, says an Ethiopian LGBTIQA+ activist Faris Cuchi Gezahegn on twitter.

Sadly, there are hardly any documents indicating the HIV/AIDS prevalence rate of the LGBTIQA+ community or the number of people affected by it in Ethiopia. Social groups like DANA and Addis Alliance  adapted  information from MSM groups in other countries and distribute that to thousands of men and women who have presence on social media.  Members also distribute lube, which is hard to come by, especially in rural places. But obviously this is not enough because Ethiopia is a huge country, much of it rural with many languages and still most people are not online.

A simple Google search, nonetheless, shows that based on a single point estimate, there are nearly 1.2 million people living with HIV/AIDS in Ethiopia at the moment. Anti- LGBTIQA+ bias further enables the spread of HIV by discouraging many in the community from getting tested or treated for HIV for fear of harassment.

An activist from Addis Alliance said, “I would like to emphasize that the HIV epidemic within our community might be considered as cleansing by God for our “sin” but we are part of the society”.

“To assimilate with the general community and to hide, some homosexuals have sexual relations with the opposite sex. As one can imagine, the epidemic doesn’t only affect us. If the Federal HIV/AIDS Prevention and Control Office want to reach its goal, its services should be all inclusive”. 

Anti-homosexuality laws act as restriction access to services and limit provider efficacy, whether intentionally or not. Hence, protecting the rights of LGBTIQA+ is central to achieving Ethiopia’s 2030 goal. 

People should not be deprived of the basic constitutional protections of equality, privacy, and free expression simply because they are LGBTIQA+.


By House of Guramayle (HoG)   

The Ethiopian flag

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