Questions are being asked about the decision to host Africa’s biggest AIDS and STI conference in Zimbabwe later this year.
The Society for AIDS in Africa (SAA) has announced “with great pleasure” that Zimbabwe has been chosen to host the 18th International Conference on AIDS and STI’s in Africa (ICASA 2015).
The news is somewhat surprising considering the fact that same-sex relationships and sexual activity are illegal in the country.
It is unclear how the conference will deal with issues concerning men who have sex with men (MSM) and transgender women, acknowledged as being among the “key population groups” when it comes to tackling HIV on the continent.
There are also concerns that delegates who may be LGBT could face discrimination and even arrest if they visit the country for the conference.
Somewhat ironically, the conference theme is: “AIDS in Post 2015: Linking Leadership, Science & Human Rights.”
Dawie Nel, Director of OUT LGBT well-being in Pretoria, expressed his disquiet about the news, considering the “anti-gay attitude of Zimbabwe’s President Mugabe.”
“I won’t be going,” he told Mambaonline bluntly. “People should think long and hard about attending, both on principle and in practice.”
He recounted the troubling experience of taking part in the 16th ICASA conference which was held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in 2011. A pre-conference meeting hosted by African Men for Sexual Health and Rights (AMSHeR) addressing MSM was disrupted after the hotel where it was meant to take place refused to host the function at the last minute.
Threats were also made against the delegates, the meeting’s interpreters’ booth was stormed and police had to keep protestors at bay.
Nel called on the organisers of the the upcoming ICASA to guarantee the safety of the LGBT and MSM delegates who may wish to travel to Zimbabwe.
Chester Samba, Director of GALZ, Zimbabwe’s LGBTI group, said he understood the concerns but backed the country’s hosting of the event. He insisted that it was important to look at the “bigger picture” and to acknowledge that “some progress has been made on working with LGBT people.”
“Our perspective is that GALZ and other organisations working with ‘key populations’ need to take advantage of the space and platforms for dialogue that have been created by ICASA,” he said.
Samba expressed confidence that the organisers will ensure the safety of all delegates but added that “conference attendees need to be cognisant of the laws regarding same-sex conduct in Zimbabwe. Same-sex conduct is still criminalised and we need to respect the fact that this is still the case.”
ICASA 2015 will be held from 29 November to 4 December. A memorandum of understanding to host the event was signed late last month by Zimbabwe’s Minister of Health, Dr. Pagwesese David Parirenyatwa, and Dr. Ihab Ahmed, SAA President.
The organisers say they are expecting between 7 000 and 10 000 of the world’s leading scientists, policy makers, activists, people living with HIV and government leaders – as well as a number of heads of state and civil society representatives.
The event had originally been set to take place in Hammamet, Tunisia from 8 to 13 November but was postponed in May “due to reasons beyond our control”, said the organisers.
Gay sex and public affection are illegal in Zimbabwe, with penalties of up to three years in jail. Same-sex marriage is also illegal, as entrenched in the country’s Constitution.