Experts see it as a blot on global advances made in HIV control and are lining up to lobby with 19 Asian countries to repeal their outdated laws.
From Bangkok to Mumbai, Asian cities already suffer the impact of such discriminatory laws and practices with MSM communities showing exponentially high infection rates compared with the general population.
"In the Asia-Pacific region, and across the world, there are too many examples of countries with laws, policies and practices that punish, rather than protect people in need of HIV services," said Michel Sidibe, executive director of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS). He was setting the agenda for a regional dialogue in Bangkok last week to deal with legal barriers against HIV prevention.
"Where the law does not advance justice, it stalls," Sidibe added. "Advancing human rights and gender equity would not only be a triumph for the AIDS response, but for human development as a whole."
UNAIDS says most countries in the region still have laws and practices that restrict the rights of people living with HIV and those at higher risk of exposure. Such practices deny communities like injecting drug users (IDUs), sex workers and MSM access to prevention measures, care and treatment, experts say.
Consenting same-sex couples could face jail sentence in Asian countries, including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Brunei, Burma, Cook Islands, Malaysia, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Singapore and Sri Lanka.
"In Papua New Guinea we still carry archaic laws criminalising same-sex relations from the 1800s," says Dame Carol Kidu, the country’s minister of community development. The state’s only woman minister was talking to the media on the sidelines of the Bangkok meet.
The laws show how many states once ruled by the British in Asia still cling to old colonial laws, said Michael Kirby, an Australian jurist associated with the Global Commission on HIV and the Law that hosted the meet. "It is a specific legacy of the British empire. Of the 54 commonwealth countries (in the world), 41 still have laws on gay sex crimes," he told IPS. The Commission is an independent body of leading experts in law, human rights and HIV prevention.
Reports on the spread of the killer disease by UNAIDS, WHO, UN Development Programme (UNDP) and the Commission on AIDS in Asia, an independent body, underscore the argument that suppressing sexual rights only fuel the spread of HIV.
World Health Organisation (WHO) projects that by 2020 around 46 percent of new infections in Asia will be among men who have sex with men, an over three-fold rise from the 2008 rate of 13 percent. In affluent urban centres like Singapore and Hong Kong, sex between men is the leading mode of transmission, reveals UNAIDS.
Asian cities have already begun to reveal the grim face of HIV among MSM.
In Rangoon, the former capital of Burma, MSM account for 29.3 percent of new HIV cases, against 0.7 percent of the general population. Meanwhile in Mumbai, the incident rate for MSM is 17 percent, against 0.36 percent in the general population, U.N. reports note.
The Vietnamese, Cambodian and Indonesian capitals offer similar numbers. Hanoi has 9.4 percent infection rates among its MSM community, Phnom Penh has 8.7 percent and Jakarta has 8.1 percent. In comparison, the HIV rates among the general population are 0.5 percent in Hanoi and 0.2 percent in Jakarta.
Even in Thailand, which has a more accommodating culture for MSM, the HIV infection rates mirror the continent’s broader urban pattern – 30.8 percent MSM account for new infections, against 1.4 percent of the general population.
But even if the drive to repeal the discriminatory laws succeeds, a far greater cultural challenge on gay sex has to be overcome, notes the Commission on AIDS in Asia. Unlike other regions, a large population of MSM is not self- identified as gay and nearly 40 to 50 percent are married, points out the regional commission.
This trend of infection spread among MSM in Asia could impact recent gains made in HIV control.
In 2009, there were 4.9 million people living with HIV in Asia, which UNAIDS confirms was the same number as five years earlier. That year saw 300,000 people die from AIDS-related causes. There were 360,000 newly infected cases across the continent in the same period.
The global gains made to combat the deadly virus 30 years after the first cases were diagnosed emerged in 2009, with 2.6 million new cases being reported, down from 3.1 million in 1999, according to UNAIDS. Globally, there were 33.3 million people living with HIV in 2009, compared to 26.2 million a decade before, according to UNAIDS. A majority, some 22.5 million, were from Sub-Saharan Africa.
A downward trend was reflected in the annual death toll, with 1.8 million people succumbing to AIDS-related causes in 2009 from the 2.1 million deaths reported in 2004, according to UNAIDS.
Kirby, the Australian jurist, however cautions that policy makers need to be unequivocal about what AIDS is to help the MSM community. "It is very important to make the point that AIDS is not a gay epidemic," he said.