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WORLD AIDS DAY: Groups Urge Repeal of “Antiquated Colonial Laws”

Peter Richards

PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad, Nov 28 2009 (IPS) - On the heels of a new report by UNAIDS that the HIV virus is now infecting Caribbean men and women at an equal rate, activist groups are urging regional leaders to eliminate laws that further the stigmatisation associated with the deadly virus.

Ahead of World AIDS Day on Dec. 1, the Commonwealth HIV and AIDS Action Group (CHAAG) this week condemned Caribbean governments for retaining anti-gay laws on their books. They are calling on both regional leaders and their counterparts in the Commonwealth, a grouping of 53 member states, most former British colonies, to take immediate action to change the situation.

“This is crunch time, therefore, for the Commonwealth,” said Stephen Lewis of AIDS Free World, one of the bodies associated with the CHAAG.

“The Commonwealth may decide not to deal with it at the table with the heads of government at CHOGM but undoubtedly it will be intensely discussed in the corridors,” said the former U.N. HIV/AIDS envoy, who spoke at a news conference two days before the Commonwealth leaders opened their 21st summit from Nov. 27 to 29 in Trinidad.

The group is asking that Commonwealth nations recognise the “incompatibility of discriminatory laws on sexual minorities and effective public health responses; these antiquated colonial laws, which only six out of 53 Commonwealth nations have repealed, undermine our efforts to fight the HIV epidemic and highlight the urgent need for law reform in Commonwealth member states”.

Lewis said the 53-nation grouping needs to address the situation in the Caribbean and parliamentary moves in Uganda to pass a law which, among other things, seeks to punish all HIV-positive homosexual men, which CHAAG argues is an abuse of fundamental human rights.

“For the moment, if the Commonwealth does not address this issue of the Uganda law and the accelerating homophobic legislation in the Caribbean, then the lofty principles of the Commonwealth lie in tatters,” warned Lewis, a former Canadian politician.

“The proposed [Ugandan] legislation calls for, among other things, the execution of all HIV-positive homosexual men. It stigmatises and criminalises sexual minorities and people living with HIV in Uganda and is an abuse of fundamental human rights,” CHAAG said in a statement.

Basil Williams of the Caribbean HIV and AIDS Alliance said the situation in Uganda was worrisome and called on regional governments not to follow suit.

“This is a wake-up call for many of the Caribbean governments, who continue to maintain on their statute books the ‘buggery laws’,” he said.

“This is a wake-up call for many, many years of inaction and now there needs to be a time where action is taken across the Caribbean so that we do not see a progression from Uganda to other countries of the Commonwealth and we do not witness a further marginalisation and discrimination of MSM (men who have sex with men), sex workers, people living with HIV and AIDS and homosexuals,” Williams told journalists.

He was critical of the international community for its “deafening silence” on the situation in Uganda and the continued criminalisation of homosexuality in the Caribbean.

“Where in heaven’s name is the United Nations? Where is the executive director of UNAIDS, who has the overriding responsibility of dealing with the pandemic internationally and has personally expressed revulsion at the homophobic laws that exit in the Caribbean and beyond?” he asked.

“The Commonwealth comprises 30 percent of the world’s population but a staggering 60 percent of the worlds HIV and AIDS population. Discriminatory laws such as these proposed in Uganda undermine the efforts of all who strive to fight this epidemic by stigmatising sexual minorities, refusing to recognise their right to access HIV prevention and treatment information and violates the constitutional rights of Ugandans,” Williams added.

The Caribbean Vulnerable Communities Coalition (CVC), another of the entities raising alarm bells about the situation in Uganda and the Caribbean, described the move as “backward”.

“We are extremely concerned about this backward move and the impact it will have on HIV interventions. Already because of social pressure, policies and legislation, men who have sex with men are a hard to reach population. These laws directly result in among other things, fewer persons coming forward to access services,” said CVC executive director Robert Carr.

According to the UNAIDS-WHO AIDS Epidemic Update for 2009, released here earlier this week, the total number of people living with HIV globally is now 33.4 million. Of these, adults comprise 31.3 million; women 15.7 million; and children under 15 years, 2.1 million.

The report said Caribbean men and women were contracting the deadly HIV virus in equal numbers and that there has been a nine percent increase in the number of persons living with the virus in the region.

It said that after 28 years, the HIV epidemic is now “evenly distributed between males and females”.

“With a total number of 240,000 people living with HIV in the Caribbean, this is an increase of nine percent between 2001 and 2008,” said Arkadiusz Majszyk, director of the UNAIDS Caribbean Regional Support Team.

Majszyk, who spoke with journalists earlier this week, said it is now clear that an epidemic which started as a predominantly male problem has now become a serious condition impacting negatively on women’s health and that in many instances, women are acquiring HIV from their only sexual partner.

“What is now necessary is research into the sexual behaviours of these partners and the role and importance of bisexuality in the transmission of HIV to Caribbean women,” he said.

Male-to-male transmission of HIV continues to play a role in the spread of the epidemic in the Caribbean and the UNAIDS officials said the situation should be addressed seriously.

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