I don’t think the sequence of these events was coincidence. But then, I just read the news. Can we legislate HIV out of existence, or is it the proverbial ostritch head in the sand?
Among those arrested work towards providing critical HIV prevention, care and treatment services among men who have sex with men (MSM).
The organisations and other leading international and regional institutions partnered to organise a groundbreaking International Conference on AIDS and STIs in Africa (ICASA) held in December last year in Dakar, Senegal.
At that conference, public health leaders, scientists, community and politicians all affirmed their support to meaningfully address HIV among MSM.
In closing at ICASA, IAS Executive Director Craig McClure said: "The unique partnership that has driven the HIV response has at its core the people living with HIV and the populations most vulnerable - women and youth, gay men and other men who have sex with men, sex workers and drug users. The communities most at risk and those living with the disease have shown us that the fight against HIV
is a fight for the human rights of all human beings."
Senegalese government officials, as hosts to this international gathering of 8000 HIV professionals, also publicly pledged their support to reducing HIV among sexual minorities during their speeches and presentations.
On 22December last year, just ten days after the ICASA conference, police officers raided apartment of an HIV prevention programme leader working with the Senegalese lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community, and arrested him and eight other men. Last week the men appeared in court to respond to charges of "criminal conspiracy and engaging in acts against the order of nature" where they were sentenced to eight years in jail.
Under Article 3.913 of the Senegalese penal code, homosexual acts are punishable by imprisonment of between one and five years and a fine of 100,000 ($200) to 1,500,000 ($3,000) CFA francs.
SAA and IAS believe criminalising sexual orientation has never been shown to reduce the transmission of sexually transmitted infections, including HIV and Aids, and is an abuse of basic human rights.
From the perspective of science and sound public health policy, the SAA and IAS believe that all countries around the world must work respectfully with all communities of their population to stem the tide of inequality and to support disease prevention. Evidence shows us that criminalising and discriminating against any group of individuals serve to fuel the HIV and Aids epidemic by denying services and relevant prevention messages.
"The arrest of these men, based purely on their sexual orientation, represents a major setback for the Senegalese response to HIV, which is widely viewed as a model in
According to UNAIDS, fewer than one in 20 men who have sex with men around the world has access to HIV prevention, treatment, and care - and even fewer in low-income settings like Senegal. Compared to the HIV testing rates of 63-85 percent seen among men who have sex with men in Australia, Europe, and North America, rates in this population in much of Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe are often under 20 percent.
As has been demonstrated in many different countries, reducing the social exclusion of gay and MSM communities through the promotion and protection of their human rights (including sexual rights and the right to health) is not only consistent with, but a prerequisite to good public health.
Once discriminatory policies are abolished and stigma and discrimination are confronted, country-based programmes can be put in place to encourage gay men and MSM to stay free of HIV infection, thus supporting national goals of reducing HIV burden.