|Jennifer Josef, ILGA-ASIA|
|Jennifer Josef, ILGA-ASIA|
Even as activists across the world gear up to commemorate the International Day Against Homophobia, sexual minority communities and people living with HIV-AIDS in West Bengal, India are facing a severe humanitarian crisis that threatens to undo past gains in securing their human rights and combating the HIV-AIDS epidemic in the region.
For over six months till date, the West Bengal State AIDS Prevention and Control Society (WBSAPCS) has withheld all funding to MANAS Bangla, a network of thirteen community-based organizations(CBOs) with a highly vulnerable target constituency of about 10,000 men who have sex with men (MSM), transgenders and Hijras, many of whom are living with HIV-AIDS.
In May 2011, The WBSAPCS stopped the disbursal of funds to one of MANAS Banglas seven zones, citing alleged financial irregularities in the zonal center. Even though WBSAPCS has not shared any conclusive findings about these alleged irregularities, it has subsequently withheld funding from all the other six zones of MANAS Bangla since October 2011, without providing any official closure notice or explanation for this blanket cessation of funds. Moreover, there has been no official notice for the renewal of projects in these centers for the next funding cycle that started in April 2012, even though several centers have completed the required annual evaluation successfully amid severe financial constraints. While the WBSAPCS has not provided any official explanation, an anonymous inside source has told the media that non-governmental organisations that were working under the erstwhile left-front regime in West Bengal are being eased during the changeover to the new government in 2011, such that organizations closer to the new regime can be ushered in under the National AIDS Control Project (NACP).
Whether due to political vendetta or bureaucratic apathy, the withholding of pending project grants and the potential non-renewal of future projects has interrupted targeted interventions that have been steadily working for HIV-AIDS prevention since 2004. The funding gap has pushed hundreds of MANAS Banglas workers many of them living with HIV to severe financial and social insecurity. Most staff members belong to vulnerable MSM, Transgender and Hijra populations who cannot easily find mainstream jobs. Many of them have therefore taken to on-street sex work due to the months-long cessation of their salaries, which has exposed them to harassment, abuse, and stigma, undoing years of painstaking work for their social empowerment.
The arbitrary cessation of all funding without proper explanation has also adversely affected the sexual health of MANAS Banglas target communities.
Many HIV-positive persons among sexual minority communities and their relatively mainstream sexual partners depend on MANAS Bangla centers for support and facilitation of access to anti-retroviral treatment, which have been increasingly difficult to provide in the absence of staff salaries and project implementation funds. By March 2012, condom promotion was stopped across centers as reserves ran out and new supplies could not be bought.
Thus governmental apathy towards these communities is resulting in the potential increase of HIV transmission and AIDS-related deaths among MSM/TG/Hijra and associated communities, contradicting the Indian governments stated aim of halting and reversing the HIV-AIDS epidemic.
The relevant authorities within WBSAPCS have repeatedly refused to meet MANAS Bangla representatives despite many official requests. Initial attempts to dialogue with WBSAPCS were met with the standard official line that MANAS Banglas concerns are being looked into sympathetically. However, on March 14, representatives of WBSAPCS threatened to use police force against MANAS Bangla activists waiting to meet the Project Director of WBSAPCS, clearly demonstrating the resistance of the authorities to engage in transparent dialogue. MANAS Bangla board members have also repeatedly written to senior officials of National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO), who have failed to respond to the situation. Although WBSAPCS has conducted three enquiries into alleged financial irregularities, no conclusive results have been shared with MANAS Bangla. Moreover, there has been no official intimation about the future continuation or renewal of MANAS Banglas, even those who were successful in the recently concluded Annual Evaluation in compliance with NACO norms.
This apathy and lack of response flies in face of the fact that MANAS Bangla has been recognized as a model community-based mobilization effort run by marginalized MSM, Transgender and Hijra communities for their health and human rights. Working in West Bengal since 2004, MANAS Bangla has recently been featured in a study initiated by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) as one amongst six successful community based HIV interventions that have worked for MSM-TG-Hijras in India. In another UNDP report, MANASBangla has been described as one of the largest HIV interventions that is owned, managed and run by the communities it caters to.
In the circumstance, the board members, staff and community members of MANAS Bangla have decided to launch a campaign around the time of the International Day Against Homophobia, demanding an appropriate response from the authorities to the crisis affecting a significant section of MSM, TG and Hijra communities in West Bengal. In particular, we demand:
* The immediate release of pending grants for MANAS Bangla targeted interventions that have been neither financially supported nor officially discontinued since last year;
* An explanation for the discontinuation or non-renewal of future projects for the funding cycle starting April 2012, despite the adequate completion of annual evaluations in several zones of MANAS Bangla;
* The continuation of vital health related services for sexual minority populations that were dependant on MANAS Bangla, to whom the National AIDS Control Organization and the WBSAPCS must fulfill their obligations and responsibilities.
We also intend to consult and gather legal support and advice in order to build a case against WBSAPCS and NACO, such that requisite legal steps can be taken as and when necessary. We will need financial support for conducting the aforementioned events within the campaign, as well as for lodging staff and community members from MANAS Banglas projects in different parts of West Bengal in the state capital of Kolkata (Calcutta) during the campaign.
In this moment of grave danger that has imperiled the sexual health and human rights of some of the most socio-economically marginalized minorities in West Bengal, we would look for your support and help in order to gain the due infrastructural and governmental support that has been denied to these communities. In hope and solidarity,
MANAS Bangla Board Members and Staff.