culture shockers: Leading AIDS organizations “concerned” about ruling on gay Malawi couple

photo courtesy of IPS News

photo courtesy of IPS News

We reported a few weeks back about Steven Monjeza and his partner Tiwonge Chimbalanga of Malawi, who, after celebrating their engagement to one another, were arrested and tried for “unnatural acts and gross indecency.” On Monday, May 24th, they were sentenced to 14 years in prison with hard labor and have been assigned to separate prisons 40 miles apart. The international community is up in arms about this decision; the US State Department is “appalled,” Madonna has come out as “shocked and saddened,” and several countries are considering reducing aid to Malawi as a result.

But, besides signifying a major step back in the global fight for human rights and equality, the sentencing also has the potential to have serious health consequences for Africa, according to two of the world’s leading AIDS groups, UNAIDS and The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Both organizations have expressed concern that such a conviction will force gay men underground, preventing them from getting tested and seeking treatment for HIV/AIDS not only because of cultural discrimination, but now also because of the explicit legal ramifications of being gay in Africa.

Currently in Malawi almost one million people, approximately 12 percent of the population, are living with HIV. Any hinderance to the fight against HIV/AIDS in this country should be met with severe opposition, especially by the country’s leaders. However, during the trial, Malawi’s President Bingu wa Mutharika called homosexuality “evil and very bad before the eyes of God.”

In a meeting with President Mutharika and the head of UNAIDS, Michel Sibide, Michel Kazatchkine, the head of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, was quoted saying that, ”Criminalizing sexual behavior drives people who engage in same-sex relations underground and hampers HIV-related programs aimed at addressing their needs.”

Sibide added that, “Evidence from several countries in Africa shows a significant number of new HIV infections occurring among sex workers, people who use drugs and men who have sex with men.” Sibide went on to say that ”opening a societal dialogue on these sensitive and critical issues is the only way to guarantee access to health services and restore dignity to all.”

The failure of Malawi officials to adhere to universal human rights standards promises to worsen the pre-existing culture of fear and silence both in Africa with regards to both homosexuality and HIV/AIDS. Malawi now has the attention of the international community, which has called upon it to acknowledge the rights of Monjeza and Chimbalanga and to confront the nation’s problem of homophobia in order to effectively combat not only hate and inequality, but also the global epidemic of HIV/AIDS.

May 28, 2010 by Annie
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