Discriminatory laws hinder Burundi’s response to HIVPublished on Wednesday, 10 December 2014 16:18
On Human Rights Day (10 December), Jean Claude Kamwenbusa reports on how the criminalisation of same sex relationships in Burundi is putting people’s health and lives at risk. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people (LGBTI), as well as sex workers, are among those most at risk of HIV infection. “Laws that criminalise consensual sexual conduct and real or perceived sexual orientation increase the risk of HIV/AIDS among the sexual minorities in Burundi,” said Minani*, a member of Burundian Youth Network of HIV Positive (RNJ+). Billary*, a young member of Humura Burundian association against HIV, agrees that the imprisonment and punishment of lesbian, gay, transgender and intersex people reduces the efficiency of the national HIV response. “It makes sexual minorities afraid of showing themselves and afraid to visit the health clinics. They don’t dare to go into government health agencies to request assistance, treatment or prevention services,” he said.
HIV prevalence in Burundi still stands at 1.1 per cent, falling short of the 2015 target of zero new infections. Rukiza*, a counsellor at Rukundo Health Centre, said: “I think it will not be possible to arrive at zero unless the government adopts a new inclusive policy to care for all, particularly the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex community. “The most sexually active group within this community, young people aged 15-24 years, are not being reached by HIV prevention services. This means they are having unprotected sex which brings a high risk of HIV infection. There is a contradiction between laws criminalising same sex relationships and public health imperatives to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS among underserved populations,” she added.
Stigma and discrimination
Burundi’s response to the HIV epidemic has not sufficiently targeted high-risk populations, such as men who have sex with men (MSM) and LGBTI people. Nurwumunyango,* who is also a member of Humura, believes the Burundian government should decriminalise same sex relationships in order to reach those most at risk. He said: “Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people are exposed to the risks of stigmatisation and discrimination when they reveal their sexual orientation or perceived gender identity. The stigma attached to being HIV positive and homosexual, as well as being criminalised, greatly increases their vulnerability to violence.” This legal and social discrimination has terrible consequences when people are too afraid to seek treatment. “My young brother died of AIDS in 2012, at home, due to a lack of access to treatment because he was gay,” said Nurwumuryango. Accessing information and education is another challenge confronting the gay community, as those who seek training or information services of any kind often encounter rejection, humiliation and derision.
Link Up is an ambitious project from a consortium of partners, including the International HIV/AIDS Alliance, which is improving the sexual and reproductive health and rights of more than one million young people in five countries in Africa and Asia. In Burundi the project aims to reach 175,000 young people affected by HIV to increase health-seeking behaviours and uptake of quality integrated maternal health, family planning and HIV information and services, as well as to uphold their sexual and reproductive rights. There is a particular focus on transgender people, men who have sex with men and sex workers, all of whom experience extreme difficulties accessing services due to the high levels of stigma, discrimination, and in some cases, the fear of arrest.
New laws needed
All people, regardless of sexual orientation, should be assured access to information about how to prevent HIV, as well as treatment and care services. Everyone should be given the means of protecting their sexual health and, where necessary, treatment to prevent HIV infection such as post-exposure prophylaxis. Programmes like Link Up are a great step in the right direction, but much more needs to be done to increase the coverage of such programmes and ensure that the human rights of marginalised populations are being upheld. “If the Burundian government is really committed to ending HIV transmission, it should eliminate discrimination against sexual minorities. The Burundian government must abolish the law which criminalises HIV and adopt a new one which offers HIV and AIDS care, treatment and prevention service for all,” said Nestor a young HIV peer educator.
*All names changed to protect interviewees’ identities