Tuesday, November 20, 2012

As long as homosexuality is criminal, ‘zero new infections’ of HIV will not be achievable

By Dr Mannasseh Phiri

Dr Mannasseh Phiri

At the beginning of last week, the world received the news that our neighbours in Malawi had suspended laws against same-sex relationships pending a parliamentary decision on whether to repeal the laws or not. Police have been ordered not to arrest anyone involved in homosexual relationships or acts, until the laws have been reviewed. The Malawian government hopes that the suspension of the laws will spark off national debate which will help parliament guide the country as appropriate.

Back in May 2012, newly installed President Joyce Banda had said in her maiden ‘state of the nation’ address to parliament that laws regarding indecent practices and unnatural acts would be repealed. In suspending the laws, President Banda has taken a very bold step in a country that, like Zambia and most countries in Africa, has strong conservative views opposed to homosexuality.

In Zambia, the government has not given us any leadership or guidance save for a non-committal and glum statement by the then Information Minister and Government Spokesman Fackson Shamenda during the fierce public debate that followed UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon’s visit to Zambia in February 2012. Mr Shamenda was reported to have said Zambia has laws on homosexuality, and will follow those laws. By implication this meant that Zambia’s official stand was not to follow Ban Ki Moon’s advice that Zambia should respect the rights of gay people.

Another raging public debate took place in the lead up to the Presidential elections in 2011. The ruling MMD came across and published some ‘evidence’ that PF President Michael Sata had told foreign journalists that when his party came into power they would review the laws on homosexuality. A ridiculous political circus followed, fuelled by the state print media. Michael Sata was demonised as a gay-loving presidential candidate who would legalise same-sex marriages if voted into power. The debate was so heated, filled with hate and laughable homophobic rhetoric and Zambians saw through it and voted for Sata as President. Unfortunately, neither Sata nor anyone in his government has said anything about the need to review the laws against homosexuality.

In Reflecting on AIDS on June 3rd, inspired by President Joyce Banda’s announcement to parliament, I lamented: “With our neighbours to the east and to the south having spoken out at the highest political level (about homosexuality), albeit in diametrically opposed directions, where is Zambia’s leadership on the spectrum between Malawi’s
legalization and Zimbabwe’s homophobic rhetoric? Don’t you so wish we could at least hear from President Michael Sata or Dr Guy Scott where they want to take Zambia on this subject? I do.”

There still has been no comment or reaction from the venerated gentlemen and their colleagues. (In fact there has hardly been any official comment on any major HIV issues – especially from the top most political echelons. Since he came into office, the President has hardly said anything at all - ad lib or otherwise - about HIV and AIDS in Zambia (let alone MSM and gay rights. He has also not acknowledged or denied that he said in an interview that he would review laws criminalising same-sex relationships. –– in one year plus. The interview (if indeed it did take place) has not been published in Zambia. National collective head-in-the-sand homophobia continues as we watch and marvel as the courageous lady leader next door suspends the law so that it can be re-visited, and reviewed sans pressure.

Official government documents on the shape and character of Zambia’s HIV epidemic identify one of the Key Drivers of HIV infections in Zambia as ‘vulnerable and marginalised populations (including MSM and prisoners). Despite it being criminal, men are having sex with other men in Zambia in prisons and outside. We also know there is a ‘significant’ gay community in Zambian cities and towns. Their activities have a bearing on the general epidemic and if they are not investigated and new infections continue to arise unabated and uncontrolled among them, we shall never get to ‘zero new infections’.

We also know that recently government approved studies on HIV and AIDS in our prisons that prisoners (men especially) are acquiring HIV in prisons in significant numbers. In 7 provincial prisons surveyed, the HIV prevalence is double what it is outside prison. Where is the legality, logic and culpability if our systems are condemning people to prisons where we know some of them will be infected with HIV? Where, as certainly as the Zambezi River flows into the Indian Ocean, some of them will be released, come out and infect their partners with the virus?

Where is the legality, logic and culpability if our prison systems do not provide condoms freely and openly inside the prisons so prisoners can protect themselves against infection? Where is our collective national conscience when we have been provided the facts and continue to look away?

I once had then Information Minister Given Lubinda as my guest on TalkingAIDS on JOY FM. I asked him the straight blunt question: “On whose hands is the blood of people who are sentenced to prison and die of AIDS after being infected with HIV inside the prison?” His answer was equally straight and blunt: “The Government”! And I thought, “Touche!”

If we are serious about Zambia achieving “zero new HIV infections”, we must find and expose all the nooks and crannies where new infections take place. Is the illegality of homosexuality making people afraid to seek HIV testing care and support?

We must, like Malawi, boldly suspend the laws against same-sex relationships for research be done, and for our legal minds and parliament to review the laws and inform us if these laws are even legal. We must do this however unpleasant, unpalatable, unacceptable, un-Christian, ‘un-Zambian’ or ‘un-African’ we think the practice is.

Like Malawi, this needs bold political leadership. I challenge President Michael Sata to lead us forward in this specific issue because I know he can.


Anonymous said...

actually that part made me think about the issue of transmission in prison and outside prison. I feel this issue of same sex in prisons is being used to try to fight for legalising same sex relationships. I think the Doc should separate the two issues. Its another issue to call for provision of condoms in prisons and acknowledging that men are having sex with men. and its another thing to begin to call for Zambia to move like Malawi did. I think the problem of the spread of HIV in prisons can be looked at separately and tackled separately coz its true we need to save lives.

Anonymous said...

I pretty much agree to a certain degree that failure to accept that homosexuality is one of the leading channels to new infections, there is also need to ensure that society is prepared to accept that people have different sexual preferences. Zambia is right now surrounded by two very good cases studies in the region...While Malawi is proposing its legislation towards homosexuality, Zimbabwe (President Mugabe)on the other side is one of the world's biggest critics of homosexuality. Its therefore, important for us as Zambia to settle for a stance that will ensure that we attain zero new HIV infections without provoking our society..

Mutimba Mazwi said...

Great piece and observations by Dr. Phiri there. Zambians are, by nature, highly resistant to what they see as an erosion of cultural values.
And to them, the issue of homosexuality amounts to taboo. If the idea behind legalizing homosexuality is to drive infections down, one challenge by advocates of homosexuality is that they will have an uphil battle convincing the average man and woman in the street that everyone has different sexual preferences.
To gauge how people would react to the legalization of homosexuality, one only has to look as near the social network Facebook where scorn, vitriol and anger are poured upon people who declare their positions.
Comments and observations range from calls for prayers to all sorts of unprintable names and labels.
The reason is that the HIV behavioural change campaigns have focused on condom usage, sticking to one sexual partner, etc and left the homosexuality question unattended.
One hopes we could pause long enough and undertake some self-reflection before we declare our stance as a country.

Mie1 said...

We might as well accept them and try to assimilate them in our wider society. To criminalise the act and them hoping to make homosexuality go away is wishful thinking

Anonymous said...

It is sad that a blind eye is being turned to this issue, especially that the prisons have the highest HIV infection rates. If accepting homosexuality will assist in reducing the HIV infection rates, then so be it

Anonymous said...

It is courageous of Dr Manasseh Phiri to have come clean and straight forward on the issue of homosexuality especially in prisons. Such courage deserve support especially in our country Zambia where homosexuality is treated as taboo. I have always thought homosexuals are humans like any other Zambian whose rights must be respected, as to whether that means legalizing homosexuality iam not sure. First and foremost, Doc mentions prisons as places where homosexuality is prevalent, but the question is, are the prisoners who are involved in homosexuality doing it because of their biological make up or because they are victims of circumstances? Should we legalize homosexuality for the sake of it or because other countries are doing so or because of donors pressure? Much as i agree that prisoners who are victims of circumstances should be helped through the distribution of condoms, iam of the view that these simple statistics should not sway us to legalize it. We must acknowledge that they do exist and probably that they need our help and sympathy. HASTINGS

Anonymous said...

Homosexuality poses several questions. For example, how important is it to the general society who someone decides to go to bed with at night? Is a homosexual person a less productive human being? But greatest question of all is if homosexuality has been viewed as the source of HIV, how has the heterosexual world at large been more infected than the homosexual world?

Legalize or not legalize will always be a difficult question to answer as it is not the societal norm to approve anything viewed as non biblical or natural, e.g abortion. Unfortunately people in prison are only acting on natural instincts and responding to their natural body urges. To help fight this disease that is wiping out several nations, let us assist those being infected.

Meluse Kapatamoyo said...

Mutimba,pause, for how long? I personally don't think we have the luxuary of time. Don't get me wrong, am not advocating for same sex relationships but the longer we wait to address this situation, the more people will get infected with HIV. Remember, these men have partners on the outside.

Meluse Kapatamoyo said...

Step one for Zambia is to accept that homosexuality exists in Zambia. I think we are still in denial.

Nomathemba Moche said...

Dr Phiri
I actually don't have a comment
I was just trying to contact you
My name is Temsy
I knew you years ago in Zambis
I now live and work in the UK
if you still remember me, pls email me on temtem8@hotmail.com