Only Rights Can Stop The Wrongs

9 out 0f 10 MSM/transgender do not receive any prevention, treatment, care or support services
Human rights are fundamentally applicable to all communities irrespective of their sexual orientations and unmindful of their HIV status (or for that matter any other condition). It also means 'righting the wrongs' which have been perpetrated on LGBTs by insensitive societies and archaic laws, which actually increase the vulnerability of the marginalized communities, instead of protecting them. Read more

HIV in heterosexuals is itself a major discriminatory crisis. But for men who have sex with men (MSMs) living with HIV, it is a double jeopardy. Throughout the world they are at double risk of contracting HIV and low coverage of HIV services. So, in order to prevent and control HIV we must protect and promote the human rights of the most vulnerable and typically marginalized people. It is feared that by 2020, 50% of all MSMs in the Asia Pacific region will be living with HIV.

And what are the wrongs the LGBT community is subjected to? Well, where does one begin?

Shivananda Khan, Chief Executive of Naz Foundation International (NFI), who was honored with Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) by the British Queen, for his services to HIV/AIDS prevention and among marginalized communities in South Asia, is very vocal about the wrongs which need to be set right in the current situation for MSMs and transgenders.

He rues that “Although prevalence of HIV amongst MSM and transgenders is several times higher than in the general population, the level of service coverage is very poor. Less than 10% of MSMs in the Asia Pacific Region are covered by any sort of service. This means that 9 out 0f 10 MSM/transgender do not receive any prevention, treatment, care or support services. There is lack of proper information which can help in the development of appropriate service programmes, which can respond to the needs of these communities in regard to their HIV risks and vulnerabilities.”

“They are doubly stigmatised—due to their HIV status and also because of their sexual orientation. The discrimination is fuelled by faulty laws/policies, as well as biased attitudes of law enforcement agencies and society at large. This social ostracism disempowers them from taking action to reduce their risks.”

 “Most of us shy away from accepting ourselves because of the dilemma of social acceptance. There is a lot of discrimination against us and no law can change that attitude of people towards us. The need of the hour is to garner support from society to live a normal life like other human beings do,” These are the out pouring of an Indian gay person, who is disgusted with the social ostracism and taboos his community has to face.

But in a broader perspective, landmark judicial rulings and legal reforms do play a significant role in shaping public opinion and bringing about social reforms.

One year ago, a Delhi High Court division bench of Chief Justice AP Shah and Justice S Muralidhar, struck down a 150 year-old  statute prohibiting homosexual acts between consenting adults, as it was discriminatory and therefore a "violation of fundamental rights." They said "We declare that Section 377 IPC, in so far it criminalizes consensual sexual acts of adults in private, is violative of Articles 21, 14 and 15 of the Constitution".

"It cannot be forgotten that discrimination is antithesis of equality and that it is the recognition of equality which will foster dignity of every individual," the court said.

Shivananda concedes that since this Delhi High Court Ruling there has been a remarkable change in the mindset of the common citizen, as well as policy makers.  There is a greater recognition of the
issues of human rights, and a growing acceptance for the health rights of all people including MSM and transgenders.

But  having a law, though essential, is simply not enough. Its implementation in the true spirit is important. It is hoped that it will go a long way in ending the life-long harassment and discrimination in schools, colleges, workspaces, homes, the streets and everywhere.

Shivananda stresses upon the range of needs and concerns regarding health for MSM and transgender populations, which, while including HIV, is much broader. The WHO draft definition (2002) of sexual health includes not only absence of disease (their physical health), but also emotional, psychological and social health. Stigma and discrimination impacts across the spectrum of the lives of MSM and transgender , depriving them of education, poverty alleviation, employment, and above all, social inclusion. MSM and transgenders are citizens of their countries, and should have access to all the rights that other citizens have.

He cautions that the health care and treatment service providers have to ensure that such stigma and discrimination based on the alternate gender identity/sexual orientation of LBGTs does not impede service delivery to them as a part of their health rights. So it is of utmost importance that service providers be sensitized adequately towards the needs of MSMs and transgenders. Also, investment needs to be scaled up rapidly, along with quality services, in order to reach Universal Access by 2015.

Media is a key to this effort. The power of the media can be phenomenal if it does not sensationalize, but sensitize.

The print and visual media can play a very proactive role in this whole process of sensitization and desensitization. It can act as an important vehicle to lay bare the truth and develop an enabling environment so that MSM and transgenders are empowered to take responsibility. It can join hands with governments to address stigma and discrimination through a range of legal and social reforms, sensitisation programmes, and educational efforts.

I am tempted here to salute two wonderful films of Indian cinema, which shook the conscience of the common viewer out of its deep- rooted archaic moral values: Phir Milenge and My Brother Nikhil. The former deals with ignorance, stigma, discrimination in the workplace and the use of the courts to right the wrongs committed against those living with HIV, while the latter shows that gays are normal human beings who also deserve a place in society like anyone else. Both movies send out powerful messages (without sermonising) that if attitudes toward HIV or homosexuality are to change, the change has to come from within families.

It is hoped that the ongoing XVIII International AIDS Conference (IAC 2010) taking place in Vienna, from the 18th to the 23rd of July 2010, will prove to be a useful platform for likeminded people from around the world to raise issues regarding HIV/AIDS and MSMs. It is imperative that its credo of Rights Here, Right Now highlights the need for legal frameworks and policy approaches that promote and protect human rights as a prerequisite to a successful response to HIV/AIDS, which should go a long way in helping the LGBTs.

We indeed have a long way to go. But the process has been set into motion, and would, hopefully, be propelled forward, because, as has been rightly said: "Only by protecting the human rights of marginalized and vulnerable populations can we succeed in ending HIV transmission and ensuring universal access to care."

  Shobha Shukla
(The author is the CNS Editor, has worked earlier with State Planning Institute, UP, and teaches Physics at India's prestigious Loreto Convent. Email: shobha@citizen-news.org, website: www.citizen-news.org) 

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