This ruling comes only one day after global advocacy groups campaigned for the elimination of social discrimination against gay men and other men who have sex with men (MSM) as part of the May 17th International Day Against Homophobia. Laws criminalizing same-sex acts between consenting adults not only violate human rights, they also seriously undermine efforts to address HIV among MSM, a community that has been disproportionately impacted by the HIV epidemic in most regions of the world including Africa.
HIV prevalence among MSM in Malawi is alarmingly high. Research conducted by the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health in partnership with Malawi’s Center for the Development of People (CEDEP) has recorded HIV prevalence rates among MSM at 21.4%. Tellingly, the same study indicated that more than 34% of men interviewed had been subject to human rights abuses related to their sexuality. More than 17% were afraid to seek health services. These data help better explain elevated MSM prevalence rates in the context of severe human rights violations, discrimination and criminalization.
Criminal penalties and the denial of full and equal rights for MSM and other sexual minorities exacerbate HIV risk by driving sexual MSM underground, perpetuating fear and silence, and hindering individuals from accessing the HIV-related information and health services they may need.
The UNAIDS 2009 AIDS Epidemic Update recognizes increased evidence of risk among marginalized and vulnerable groups, and calls for a focus on prevention efforts targeting these key populations, including MSM. Each of the major global players in the HIV response – including UNAIDS, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) – have articulated reaching MSM as a priority area in an effective HIV response and expressly noted the detrimental effects of criminalization laws, stigma, and discrimination.
Chimbalanga and Monjeza were arrested following their engagement ceremony in December and have remained under police custody since. The court is expected to hand down a sentence on May 20th, with the two convicted parties facing up to fourteen years imprisonment and the possibility of hard labor.
Laws criminalizing homosexuality must be repealed if we are to have any hope of ending the AIDS epidemic. With Malawi’s President Bingu Wa Mutharika currently serving as Chairman of the African Union, the ruling in this case will set an important tone as other countries in the region attempt to address the tumultuous human rights and HIV crises facing MSM on the African continent.
The Global Forum on MSM & HIV (MSMGF) is an expanding network of AIDS organizations, MSM networks, and advocates committed to ensuring robust coverage of and equitable access to effective HIV prevention, care, treatment, and support services tailored to the needs of gay men and other MSM. Guided by a Steering Committee of 20 members from 17 countries situated mainly in the Global South, and with administrative and fiscal support from AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA), the MSMGF works to promote MSM health and human rights worldwide through advocacy, information exchange, knowledge production, networking, and capacity building.