July 23, 2013 – Over the past eight days, our communities around the world have been devastated by incidents of horrific violence, resulting in the deaths of at least four people across three countries. On July 15th, the Executive Director of the Cameroonian AIDS organization CAMFAIDS Eric Lembembe Ohena was found murdered in his Yaoundé home, his neck and feet broken, and his face, hands, and feet burned with a clothes iron. Two days ago, an anti-gay march of over one thousand people in Haiti resulted in the killing of two gay activists. And yesterday, a gender non-conforming 17-year-old attending a party in Jamaica was stripped naked by a crowd, stabbed to death, and dumped in the bushes on the side of the road.
This rash of deplorable incidents is not an anomaly isolated to this week alone. Violence against sexual minorities and gender non-conforming people is a daily reality across the globe, with hundreds of murders documented every year. Most cases are not reported in mainstream news outlets, and in many countries the police and court systems fail to hold perpetrators accountable. In the eight days since Eric Lembembe Ohena’s body was found, Cameroon’s government has reported no progress on the investigation and has sentenced two more gay men to prison and probation for homosexuality.
These incidents are a regular occurrence in many countries with severe HIV epidemics among men who have sex with men (MSM), and they have a concrete impact on the ability of MSM to access basic HIV prevention and treatment services. Data from the Global Men’s Health and Rights Survey (GMHR), reported last week in the Journal of Sexually Transmitted Diseases, indicates that experiences of homophobic violence were significantly associated with lower odds of having access to condoms, lubricants, HIV testing, and HIV treatment.
Conversely, the same study showed that community engagement, connection to gay community, and comfort with service providers were each significantly associated with higher odds of having access to condoms, lubricants, HIV testing, and HIV treatment. This makes a strong argument for the important role played by local community-based organizations in providing basic HIV services to MSM. However, providing these valuable services frequently comes with increased risk. Advocates and organizations serving MSM and transgender people are often the most visible members of our communities, making them easier targets for violence.
Following this week’s events, 42 activists representing 19 Haitian and Dominican organizations have called for increased protection of human rights defenders, expressing fear for their lives. In Cameroon, the national coalition of LGBT community organizations has formally suspended HIV projects until they receive additional financial and institutional support to secure the safety of their staff members and clients. Each group has cited repeat threats of violence against numerous members in multiple locations.
The Global Forum on MSM & HIV (MSMGF) stands with activists, community-based organizations, and community members in Cameroon, Haiti, Jamaica, and around the world in calling for greater protection of LGBT people and better systems for preventing violence. Local advocates and community-based organizations are an essential part of the response to HIV among MSM, and it is time for all levels of the global AIDS response to recognize the realities of the contexts in which they work. This includes ensuring that international projects have appropriate funding for security and emergency response, as well as a commitment to advocate against violence – both physical and structural – when called to do so by local stakeholders.
All of us at the MSMGF express our deepest condolences to those affected by these tragedies, and we stand in solidarity in efforts toward a better system for protecting those on the front lines.