Gay rights groups brave abuse, vi­o­lence to fight HIV in Cameroon

Kuwait Times - - HEALTH & SCIENCE -

Sit­ting in a cir­cle with sev­eral other young men in a char­ity’s of­fices in Cameroon’s cap­i­tal, Fleur lis­tens in­tently to the speaker talk about gay sex be­fore slowly rais­ing his hand. “Can we catch AIDS by swal­low­ing sperm?” he asks, prompt­ing laugh­ter from his peers at the group dis­cus­sion held by Al­con­doms, an or­ga­ni­za­tion pro­mot­ing the rights and health of les­bian, gay, bi­sex­ual and trans­gen­der (LGBT) peo­ple. Yet HIV and ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity are no laugh­ing mat­ter for men like Fleur in a coun­try where being gay is il­le­gal and LGBT ac­tivists face ris­ing hos­til­ity and vi­o­lence. Cameroon has the sec­ond high­est HIV preva­lence rate in West and Cen­tral Africa, af­ter Nige­ria, and men who have sex with men are hit the hard­est, says the UN AIDS pro­gram (UNAIDS).

While one in 25 peo­ple in Cameroon are liv­ing with HIV, al­most a quar­ter of men who have sex with men in Yaounde have the virus which causes AIDS. The preva­lence of HIV among this group in Douala, the eco­nomic cap­i­tal, is even higher with two in five men who have sex with men (MSM) in­fected, ac­cord­ing to the state’s na­tional AIDS con­trol com­mit­tee. The com­mit­tee says it has de­vel­oped var­i­ous strate­gies in re­cent years to re­duce the num­ber of new in­fec­tions, such as mak­ing an­tiretro­vi­ral treat­ment free and set­ting up sup­port pro­grams for pa­tients.

But the fear of dis­crim­i­na­tion and threat of five years in prison are driv­ing MSM and LGBT peo­ple away from hos­pi­tals and state pro­grams, ac­cord­ing to civil so­ci­ety groups who say they fill the gap by pro­vid­ing con­doms, coun­sel­ing and health­care. How­ever, their work in im­prov­ing ac­cess to health­care for these marginal­ized com­mu­ni­ties has also had an un­fore­seen and ad­verse im­pact, ac­cord­ing to gay rights ac­tivist Lam­bert Lamba. “Peo­ple feel that tak­ing MSM into ac­count in health pol­icy is a way to le­gal­ize ho­mo­sex­ual be­hav­ior,” he told the Thom­son Reuters Foun­da­tion in Yaounde. “This has re­sulted in more and more at­tacks on gay peo­ple and hu­man rights de­fend­ers.”

Cli­mate of fear

An­i­mos­ity is grow­ing be­tween a largely con­ser­va­tive so­ci­ety and a younger gen­er­a­tion less con­cerned by ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity in a coun­try which pros­e­cutes peo­ple for being gay more ag­gres­sively than al­most any other na­tion in the world, LGBT ac­tivists say. At least 50 peo­ple were con­victed of ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity be­tween 2010 and 2014 - for acts rang­ing from cross-dress­ing and wear­ing make-up to a man tex­ting ‘I love you’ to an­other man - ac­cord­ing to data col­lected by The Cameroo­nian Foun­da­tion for AIDS. While there have only been a hand­ful of con­vic­tions since 2014 - a drop ac­tivists at­tribute to their work, in­ter­ven­tion by LGBT-friendly lawyers and the ad­vo­cacy of West­ern diplo­mats - dis­crim­i­na­tion to­wards MSM and LGBT peo­ple re­mains rife.

Evrard, who attended the group dis­cus­sion along with Fleur, said he would never re­turn to a state hos­pi­tal when ill. “When I went once with my partner, the dis­ap­prov­ing look of the med­i­cal staff, the mur­murs and the mock­ing laugh­ter dis­cour­aged me,” he said.” I will never re­live this ex­pe­ri­ence.” Po­lice last month ar­rested 12 men for ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity be­cause they were in pos­ses­sion of con­doms and lu­bri­cants, while the of­fices of sev­eral LGBT groups have been van­dal­ized and bur­gled in re­cent years, said le­gal char­ity Hu­man Dig­nity Trust. —Reuters

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