Men who have sex with men often overlooked in Africa HIV and AIDS policies

Published: December 9, 2011

Earlier this week I represented VSO at a conference about men who have sex with men and HIV in Africa. This was part of the annual ICASA (All-Africa AIDS Conference) pre-conference so had good attendance from important global decision makers. Very few international NGOs were present, and I was proud to demonstrate that VSO recognises the importance of addressing the health and human rights of African men who have sex with men and the lesbian, gay, bi and intersex (LGBTI) community in general.

Against a backdrop of a last-minute venue change due to security concerns, I think our presence was very meaningful. I was the reporter for one of the sessions, which gave me the opportunity to address Michel Sidibé executive director of UNAIDS, and other top officials from the Global Fund and the African Commission on Human Rights directly.

Keynote speakers from PEPFAR (the key US agency) and the African Commission demonstrated that they understood the health needs of men who have sex with men in Africa (especially regarding vulnerability to HIV and AIDS), and they made impressive commitments to scale up efforts in this area. However, delegates from African LGBTI organisations challenged the speakers on a number of points. There was a widespread feeling that the African Commission was not as receptive to the inclusion of LGBTI rights as the speaker suggested. Also, PEPFAR was challenged to build capacity of local African men who have sex with men rather than channel support to large American NGOs.

We assessed the status of the HIV response among men who have sex with men communities in Africa. One recurrent theme was the extent to which public health and human rights approaches can be synchronous rather than mutually exclusive. For example, the public health response to the HIV crisis was credited with introducing a platform for discussing sexuality in Africa. However, the focus on men who have sex with men and HIV is a narrow segment of the full spectrum of LGBTI health issues (which include violence, victimisation, psychiatric disorders, substance abuse and possibly surgery for the transgender and intersex).

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