By Neil Marks
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says governments around the world must remove laws which hamper the AIDS fight, and local organisations agree, but they are wary of talk.
The Secretary-General says the world faces the challenge of upholding its commitment to reach universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support by 2010.
But Ki-moon says this goal can be achieved “only if we shine the full light of human rights on HIV” and that “means countering any form of HIV-related stigma and discrimination.”
He says this means eliminating violence against women and girls and ensuring access to HIV information and services.
Ban Ki-moon, in a message to mark World AIDS Day 2009, therefore urged all countries to remove punitive laws, policies and practices that hamper the AIDS response, including travel restrictions against people living with HIV.
He said successful AIDS responses do not punish people; they protect them.
“In many countries, legal frameworks institutionalise discrimination against groups most at risk. Yet discrimination against sex workers, drug users and men who have sex with men (MSM) only fuels the epidemic and prevents cost-effective interventions,” Mr Ban said.
By law, intimacy between men is not allowed in Guyana, as is the case in most of the Commonwealth Caribbean. Leading figures in the fight against HIV/AIDS suggest that this outlaw of same-gender sex, along with societal definitions of what is acceptable sexual behaviour, hinders an effective public health response to the epidemic.
Prostitution is also not allowed by law in Guyana.
The Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD) lauded the UN Secretary-General’s statement, but expressed that it is tired of hearing such messages given the lack of commitment from the Guyana government.
Namela Henry, who serves as co-chairperson of SASOD, said the group has always called for the removal of laws against buggery in Guyana, because the law stimulates discrimination against men who have sex with men. This discrimination bars men who have sex with men from reaching out to access health care services, such as getting tested and seeking treatment and care services if they are HIV-positive.
“We have argued from a human rights perspective, that men who have sex with men and commercial sex workers should enjoy the same rights as every other Guyanese,” Henry told Kaieteur News.
“Guyana’s buggery law fuels homophobia (discrimination against men who have sex with men) and often times all we hear are promises from the government whenever the UN and the donor community come out with these statements,” Henry declared.
There are assurances by the government that the provision of health care services is non-discriminatory, but according to Henry, the evidence collected by SASOD prove otherwise.
Commercial sex workers face a similarly grave situation, says Miriam Edwards, president of the Caribbean Sex Workers Coalition.
“I have seen the discrimination over and over again. People look at commercial sex workers funny and scream at them, and that makes it difficult for them to access health care,” she says.
Edwards works with commercial sex workers in Guyana’s interior, and only last weekend met with those who work in the gold-mining community of Mahdia.
“In Mahdia, you see how bad the situation is. They don’t have condoms and many of them don’t even know about sexually transmitted infections,” Edwards pointed out.
She said that because of the discriminatory laws against men who have sex with men and commercial sex workers, there is limited, if any government support for these vulnerable groups.
The Government has been seeking ways of preventing new infections among MSM, but has largely run into trouble. When the Minister of Health, Dr Leslie Ramsammy, tried to hand out condoms in the country’s main prison, he was met by placard-bearing religionists who accused him of trying to promote sodomy. A parliamentary motion that seeks to protect the rights of all persons, regardless of their sexual orientation, has been stalled due to protest by leading members of the religious community who argue that the regulation seeks to legalise homosexuality.
The strong homophobia within the societies, the denial from many governments, and the power of churches drive most gay men and other MSM underground or to a better socially accepted “bisexuality,” says Dr Michel de Groulard, the Regional Programme Adviser with the UNAIDS Regional Support Team.
Dr de Groulard also supports the view that criminalisation of same-sex behaviour in the Caribbean is a substantial barrier to universal access to HIV prevention, care, treatment and support.
According to UNAIDS and the World Health Organisation, 21 percent of men who have sex with men in Guyana are HIV-positive, as compared to 2.5 percent in the general population.
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