In a bold move, UNAIDS has gone ahead with a long-mooted plan to make Angola’s transsexual Kuduro star Titica one of its goodwill ambassadors.

UNAIDS is no stranger to recruiting popular Angolan figures to help with its in-country awareness campaigns. Angola’s Miss Universe, Leila Lopes, was until recently the face (and body) of a poster campaign, encouraging people to get tested and use condoms. And last year, Nacissela Maurício from the Angolan women’s basketball team, was made the first formal UNAIDS Goodwill Ambassador for the country.

But the appointment of Titica, who is one of Angola’s most popular music stars, is likely to prove far more controversial than any of the others – due to her sexuality.

Born Teca Miguel Garcia, Titica was originally a backing dancer before shooting to fame with the song Chão Chão and other hits including Abula and Olha o Boneco, which she co-performed with another popular Angolan singer Ary.

She has wowed audiences in Brazil, Spain, Germany, South Africa and Mozambique, and in Angola – as well as being named the best Kuduro artist of 2011 – she has even performed in front of long-serving President Jose Eduardo dos Santos.

As an artist she is as loved as she is despised in a country that exhibits a broad spectrum of reaction to LGBT issues – from open tolerance among many urban youth, to outright condemnation from the Catholic Church and more conservative sectors of society.

Homosexuality is officially illegal in Angola and, according to the country’s penal code, is punishable by hard labour. However, no-one seems to have a record of this law being applied and there is certainly little of the state-led intolerance or discrimination seen in other African countries.

There have been gay characters in the popular new Angolan-made soap opera Windeck – produced by one of President Dos Santos’ sons, José Eduardo Paulino dos Santos (who goes by the stage-name Coréon Du and is behind the ‘I Love Kuduro’ movement) – and other openly gay singers such as Edy Sex.

But despite this and the fact that for instance night clubs in Luanda are gay friendly, there is still an amount of sniggering displayed on social media, and some private newspapers have been known to carry strongly-worded and deeply homophobic articles, which go unchecked.

For UNAIDS, choosing well known and well liked Angolans who appeal to the country’s youth as ambassadors helps to boost its awareness campaigns – and clearly Titica’s appointment will generate interest and debate. And there is an urgent need to focus attention on the HIV epidemic in Angola.

Since the country spent so many years at war with its borders largely sealed, it has one of Africa’s lowest rates of HIV – with an official prevalence rate of between 2.1 – 3.4 percent. However, as the country slowly opens up to its neighbours – several of whom (Namibia, Zambia and the DRC) have some of the world’s highest rates of HIV – this may start to change.

Indeed, according to Dulcelina Serrano, the Director General of Angola’s Instituto Nacional de Luta contra a SIDA (INLS), who was interviewed by Angolan state media last week, of the 600,000 rapid tests that were conducted in the first quarter of this year, there were 20,765 new diagnoses, a rate of around 3.4 percent – at the very top end of the official prevalence spectrum.

Meanwhile, earlier in the year, Voice of America (VOA) carried an interview with an outgoing UNAIDS staffer in Angola, who claimed the government was not being totally honest about its prevalence rate.

According to this report, the level of infection was more likely around 5 percent, but this was being suppressed due to ‘political reasons’, while only 40 percent of infected people were receiving treatment (although Serrano claimed in his interview that 56,963 people out of total infected population of 120,764 were receving treatment in March – around 47 percent).

In the same VOA article, Zito Pacheco, a member of the Rede de Pessoa Vivendo Com VIH/Sida (Network of People Living with HIV and AIDS), also expressed concerns about the lack of public dialogue around HIV.

And the big question is whether Titica’s appointment will be used as a vehicle to start addressing non-heterosexual HIV transmission – something that, for all the country’s tolerance to sexual minorites, barely registers on Ministry of Health and INLS agendas.

During 2011, a study was carried out by the United States’ government’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), looking at behavioural attitudes and seroprevalence among Luanda’s community of men who have sex with men (MSM). However, the details were never formally published due – I was told – to ‘political reasons’.

Privately, those working in HIV-focussed NGOs in Angola have expressed concern that the head-in-the-sand approach to MSM could be storing up big problems for the future.

The worry is that if HIV awareness campaigns are not targeted at the MSM community, especially as many men are secretly involved while maintaining wives and families, this could undermine regular prevention strategies.

Speaking about her new appointment, Titica said: “I myself have suffered much humiliation. I have been beaten and picked on just for being who I am. But, I am ready to lead by example to fight against stigma and discrimination in my country and beyond.”

Let’s hope that giving her this important job – and UNAIDS deserves credit for pushing forward with her appointment – will help to break down some of Angola’s barriers, visible or otherwise.

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