Efforts to address the HIV/AIDS epidemic among Zimbabwe’s gay population are being frustrated by homophobia in the government and society.

This is according to the Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ), a national network of 6,000 gay men and women formed in 1989 to champion and protect the interests of the gay community in Zimbabwe.

Men who have sex with men are at high risk from HIV/AIDS, but Samuel Madzikure, GALZ programme manager for health, said the government’s attitude towards homosexuals had made it extremely difficult for his organisation to target the gay community with prevention messages.

Zimbabwe’s Sexual Offences Act forbids homosexuality and President Robert Mugabe has lambasted gays and lesbians on several occasions, describing them as “worse than pigs and dogs”.

“Our government is rabidly anti-gays, and this makes it almost impossible for us to reach out to our membership, some of whom would not want to be known because of the pervasive anti-gay sentiments in government and society in general,” said Madzikure.

Tongai (last name withheld), an HIV-positive member of GALZ, said he had experienced great difficulty in accessing treatment and counselling at public health institutions and nongovernmental AIDS service organisations.

“Most AIDS service organisations in this country do not want to be associated with gays. Once they know you are gay, they will not help you – they will try to frustrate you so that you don’t come back,” he said.

Such discrimination is even more pronounced in public health institutions. “Last year, I was nearly refused treatment at a local clinic because ‘I was behaving like a gay’. I was suffering from tuberculosis (TB), coughing persistently. I was finally treated, but they had humiliated me,” said Tongai.

Madzikure alleged that the government intentionally excluded gays and lesbians from national HIV/AIDS awareness, prevention and treatment programmes. “If you walk into any government health institution now you will find that there is no information or literature on gays and lesbians.”

“Even if Mugabe does not accept it, it [homosexuality] is there, and it will not go away.”

The Minister of Health and Child Welfare, David Parirenyatwa, refuted these allegations, saying all Zimbabweans were accorded the same status by health institutions. “When a person goes to a health centre, that person is not asked his or her sexual orientation,” he told IRIN PlusNews.

Efforts by GALZ to obtain government assistance in establishing the exact number of gays and lesbians infected by HIV have been frustrated, as have their requests to meet with Parirenyatwa.

GALZ’s attempts to advertise its services in the media have also met with resistance. The sole national broadcaster, ZTV, and national radio stations have refused adverts by GALZ. Zimbabwe Broadcasting Holdings (ZBH) spokesperson Sivukile Simango refused to comment but an official from ZBH, who requested anonymity, confirmed that it was the organisation’s policy not to accept adverts aimed at gays and lesbians.

Many gay people, particularly in rural areas, were unaware of the HIV counseling and education services offered by GALZ, and lacked information on how to protect themselves from the virus. “A lot of gay men in Zimbabwe have died silently through ignorance and multiple stigmatisation of homosexuality and seropositivity. As a result, there is a growing sense of urgency to extend services to this community,” Madzikure said.

Chitiga Mbanje of the Centre, a nongovernmental organisation that provides counselling, training and home-based care to people living with HIV/AIDS, confirmed that HIV prevalence appeared to be very high in the gay community.

“Lack of information means they expose themselves not only to AIDS, but to many other diseases. This is a direct result of homophobia in our country,” Mbanje commented.

Despite the pervasive homophobia in Zimbabwe, GALZ has seen its membership rise steadily, with about 400 new members joining each year.

“It is apparent that homosexuality exists throughout society, including rural areas,” said Madzikure. “Even if Mugabe does not accept it, it [homosexuality] is there, and it will not go away. We have to accept that it exists, so that we can work together in addressing HIV/AIDS among the gay community.”

Chairman of the Zimbabwe National Network for People Living with HIV (ZNPP+), Benjamin Mazhindu, called for legislation on homosexuality to be changed. “What we need to do is fight for a change of laws so that gays are given recognition. Without that, fighting AIDS among homosexuals will be futile.”

Text and main image © IRIN

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