Countries across the African continent have committed themselves to protecting the human rights of their people through international treaties, declarations and legislation. Despite these agreements, however, discriminatory laws remain and individuals of marginalised communities, minority groups and key populations continue to be disproportionately affected by HIV and AIDS.
Countries have made great strides in the AIDS response. Strong domestic and international investment has resulted in gains for the general public; new HIV infections have declined and people living with HIV are living long, healthy lives.
Despite this progress for the general public; however, the HIV and AIDS response has failed to account for all individuals across key populations and minority groups including LGBT+ people.
Globally, men who have sex with men are 28 times more likely to become infected than the general public. Female sex workers and transgender women’s risk of HIV infection is 13 times higher than that of the general public (Miles to Go, UNAIDS 2018).
In certain Eastern and Southern African countries, HIV prevalence among specific key populations compared to the general population is significantly higher. For instance, HIV prevalence among sex workers in Mozambique stands at 60% and 45.8% in South Africa (Miles to Go, UNAIDS 2018).
Laws that discriminate against marginalised individuals push the people who need assistance to the periphery of mainstream society. In the Southern and Eastern Africa region, 14 out of 21 countries criminalize same-sex sexual acts (Miles to Go, UNAIDS 2018). Also in the region, 10 countries hold laws and policies that demand parental consent for adolescents to access HIV testing services (Miles to Go, UNAIDS 2018).
Key populations, LGBT+ people and all other marginalised populations are further removed from opportunities to access quality health services including HIV prevention and treatment. In Uganda, almost two thirds (64%) of survey people who inject drugs said they avoided healthcare services for fear of discrimination or of being reported to law enforcement authorities (Miles to Go, UNAIDS 2018). Surveys indicate that men who have sex with men who are living with HIV in Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Eswantini and Lesotho were 10-40% likely to avoid or delay seeking medical care due to fear of discrimination (Miles to Go, UNAIDS 2018).
At the Champions for an AIDS-Free Generation high-level political dialogue in February 2019, entitled “HIV, Health and Inclusion”, the Chairperson and former President of Botswana, His Excellency Festus Mogae, described the situation in many countries in Africa, “We are criminalizing the very people we should be helping.”
The HIV, Health and Inclusion high-level dialogue took place at an opportune time, a week before Zero Discrimination Day 2019 with a call to action to remove discriminatory laws.
The Champions and experts, including Catherine Sozi, Director of the UNAIDS Regional Support Team for Eastern and Southern Africa, Steve Letsike of Access Chapter 2 and Sibongile Ndashe of Initiative for Strategic Litigation in Africa, called on Parliamentarians to be leaders of reform.
The Champions Chairperson urged Parliamentarians to advocate for inclusive legislation and to undergo a “systematic review” of laws in their country that criminalize and stigmatize key populations.
His Excellency Kgalema Motlanthe, the former President of South Africa, emphasised the critical role of Parliamentarians in securing the rights of key populations, “Members of Parliament must be at the forefront, eliminating barriers that hinder an inclusive environment that is free of stigma and discrimination.”
In supporting this view, Ms. Sozi called for inclusivity of action in Parliament, “when drafting bills for women, for example, Parliamentarians must ensure that the bill considers the complexity and diversity of all women. For instance women who are prisoners, sex workers, transgender, inject drugs and lesbians and other women who have sex with women.”
Harmful and inequitable laws “perpetuate violence and discrimination and undermine the health and prosperity of entire societies,” said Joaquim Chissano, the former President of Mozambique.
Zero Discrimination Day is an opportunity for national leadership to break the cycle of discriminatory laws in their countries.