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)   

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Dear Dr. Kigwangalla,

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I write to you as a fellow proud African. A citizen of your neighbour country, Kenya. A person who has visited and loves the beauty that your country has to offer; the mountains, the lakes, the parks and most of all, the people. The unmistakably Tanzanian politeness makes me cringe every time I come back to Nairobi and see how we Kenyans relate to each other. And before any Kenyan reading this gets on the defensive, I should tell you, I am as Kenyan as we come. I am a gay man. At this point, you may want to stop reading this and dismiss it as western propaganda but I urge you to read on. It will only take a few minutes of your time and I assure you, this is far from any western propaganda.

The reason I write to you is because I have watched in awe how your government and a section of the Tanzanian population has been treating people of different sexual orientation and gender identity. From calling for their arrest to stopping the supply of lubricant to having sections of the society call for murder. This is a sad and scary trend and is no way for a society to treat a section of itself.

I’ll start by saying that the Tanzanian population (and in the same way, the Kenyan and Ugandan populations) has within it, people who are black, white, left handed, right handed, living with disabilities, living with albinism, gay, lesbian, transgender, intersex among many other identities. These people have existed in our society since time immemorial (except perhaps the white people who have also been a part of the human race). Homosexuality was not introduced by the west. Anthropological studies (which you may very well dismiss as western propaganda) have shown the existence of people of different sexual orientations and gender identities even before colonization. There are so many resources with this information and please feel free to contact me for links to them.

Having said that, you twitted yesterday, “I am a social justice activist. I am a professional. I know those stuffs. Same sex inclinations are not natural!” Allow me to tell you my story. A story that is the same for many, if not all, gay and lesbian people. At no point in my life did I make the choice to be attracted to people of the same sex as I am. As I grew up and began understanding myself and learnt about what sex is and what the feelings I had were, I realized that unlike the rest of the boys I grew up with, I was not attracted to girls. I am sure that the scenario is the same for people who are attracted to those of the opposite sex. You don’t decide to choose your attraction, you just have it. In my case, I tried to be different. I tried to fit in to what society wants me to be. It did not work. I prayed on it. I contemplated hurting myself. I finally got to the point of accepting that this is who I am. That was the only choice I made, not to be gay but to accept myself for who I am.

I was brought up in a Christian family. Most people in Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya were brought up in families of a certain religion. Most religions in one way or another condemn homosexuality. If my sexual orientation was determined by how I was nurtured, I would not have turned out to be what I am. My parents brought me up in a society that vilified me for the feelings I have towards other men. Feelings I cannot control. To this day, my mother does not like that I have these feelings. But there is nothing I can do about them. There is nothing any gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender person can do about the person they are. We are all as we are.

If you ever sat down with members of the community and listened, and I mean really listened to their stories, you will realize that my story resonates with them. Unfortunately, some of us never got to the point of self-acceptance. Some of us hated themselves so much that they decided that it would be better if they didn’t exist in this world any more. A world that hates them for who they love. A world that discriminates against them in access to opportunities because of the gender they identify with. A world that has government officials declaring them worse than terrorists and calling for their arrest and murder due to something they have no control over. These people took their own lives. Lives that might have amounted to so much had society allowed them a chance to prove themselves worthy.

Banning of the supply of lubricants will not curb homosexuality in any way. What that does, and as a medical doctor I am sure you understand is increase the number of risky sexual practices. Use of condoms without lubricant or using condoms with oil based lubricant will increase the risk of the condom breaking and increase the risk of transmission of HIV and other STIs. Now you may say that banning distribution of lubricant will stop people from having sex but that would be burying your head in the sand. People will still have sex and unfortunately the sex will be risky sex. Let me quote some statistics. As of 2015, There were 1.4 million people living with HIV with the number of new infections being 54,000. That accounts for 5% of the Tanzanian population. HIV prevalence among men who have sex with men was 22.2% and heterosexual sex accounted for the vast majority (80%) of all HIV infections in your country with women being particularly affected. Now due to the crackdown on the LGBTI community, men who have sex with men will try, like I did, to fit in to the society. They will get into sexual relationships and marry women but that will not stop them from having sex with other men. With the risk brought on by the banning of lubricants, HIV prevalence among men who have sex with men is going to increase from the 22.2% and the attempt by this population to adhere to society’s norm will increase the risk of transmission to women and other heterosexual men and the vicious cycle continues.

In your tweets yesterday you kept repeating that Tanzania has not signed the “Kyogo Protocol”. I have searched all over and haven’t encountered a Kyogo Protocol. I did find a Kyoto Protocol which has nothing to do with homosexuality but all to do with climate change. What I have found however is the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Tanzania is a state party to this Covenant. It says that all persons are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to the equal protection of the law. Having said that, the protection of the rights of every citizen of Tanzania, Uganda or Kenya should not be hinged on the ratification of any international instrument. It should come from us as human beings. We will never all be the same. We do not all subscribe to the same religion, we are not all of the same skin colour, we are not all of the same sexual orientation or gender identity. The one thing that binds us all together is the fact that we are all human beings. Our differences are what makes our society beautiful. We should all strive to understand our differences and accept them as a part of what our society is. That way, in the spirit of Ubuntu, we shall all live in harmony.

Please don’t hesitate to contact me at oluoch@gmail.com should you wish to engage in further conversations. I am sure there are many other Tanzanian individuals who would wish to tell you their story. Allow them to. Understand where they come from and the struggles they have to go through on a daily basis because of something they have absolutely no control over and think about what you as a leader, as a deputy minister for health and as a human being can do to improve the lives of not only the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex people in your country but the general population.

Sincerely,

Anthony Oluoch