Speak The Unspeakable and Do The Unthinkable

The age old issue dealing with the problems of people with alternate sexuality was discussed threadbare, on the occasion of International Day against Homophobia, on 17th May, in the precincts of the almost hundred years old University of Hong Kong. This High Level Dialogue was organized jointly by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Asia Pacific Coalition on Male sexual health (APCOM), and the Centre for Comparative and Public Law (CCPL) at the Law Faculty, University of Hong Kong. The event marked the release of the key findings and recommendations of the UNDP-APCOM study titled "Punitive Laws, Human Rights and HIV Prevention among Men Who Have Sex with Men (MSM) and Transgender People In Asia and the Pacific Region: An Agenda For Action." Read more

This high level discussion could not have come at a better time, keeping in mind the alarmingly high level of prevalence of HIV in MSMs and transgender people (TG). It explored ways and means to effectively prevent HIV by creating a conducive legal environment that not only allows an honest dissemination of evidence based HIV prevention messages, but also creates confidence amongst this most marginalized and vulnerable section of society to seek information and access health related services.

It was indeed an august gathering of judges (Justices Ajit Prakash Shah and Michael Kirby), parliamentarians (Dame Carol Kidu), UN officials (Mandeep Dhaliwal), educationists (Thomas Abraham), human rights activists (Shivananda Khan OBE and John Godwin) and, above all, the people themselves who underwent violence and punitive action owing to their sexuality, who voiced their concerns in a candid and uninhibited manner, paving the way for actions to be taken on this very pertinent yet neglected issue.

Professor Johannes Chan, Dean, Faculty of Law, at the University of Hong Kong, set the ball rolling by questioning the very basis of the discrimination prevalent in society, against LBGTs (lesbians, bisexuals, gays and transgenders). He, as well as other panelists, wondered why ones conduct was determined by ones sexual preferences. There are documented evidences from various regions (like Hong Kong, India, Indonesia etc.) of upright police officers, dedicated teachers and even heads of state facing societal wrath to the extent of committing suicide.

Homosexuality in Chinese society is 2000 years old. Indian scriptures also refer to it. In fact, one chapter of Kama Sutra, the world famous treatise on sex, written by an Indian, is devoted to homosexuality. It was common for ancient royal courts in India to employ transgender people (called hijras). Yet it has become fashionable to label this so called ‘sexual digression’ as an ill of the modern society.

The key findings of the aforesaid ongoing study were presented by John Godwin, an HIV and Development Consultant based in Sydney, Australia. The data revealed a very high prevalence of HIV in MSM and transgender people as compared to the general public. It was as high as 42% and 34% in Transgenders in Mumbai and Jakarta respectively, and 30% in MSMs of Bangkok and Rangoon. Hence there is an urgent need for a review of existing practices and consultations. Although governments are slowly responding to their needs in their National AIDS policies, yet there are hardly any examples of legislative action for their rights. In 19 out of 48 countries of Asia Pacific region, homosexual behavior is deemed unlawful. Many countries have punitive police practices, resulting in extortion, assault and harassment at the hands of the police.

Nepal seems to be a lone voice in the wilderness which has given legal rights to its sexual minorities.

The lack of political will, coupled with age old mindsets, results in discrimination and stigma at all levels. The schools fail to address the social orientation and gender identity crisis; the police harass and hound them instead of protecting them from physical and mental abuse; the health services fail to include them as part of general patients seeking medical treatment. Punitive laws lend legitimacy to unethical practices by health services and prevent legal protection from discrimination in education and employment.

So it becomes imperative to build the capacity of judges, administrators, police officers and others at the helm of dispensing justice, to address these issues in a just manner. Only then can there be proper implementation of laws where they exist and enactment of desirable laws where they do not. The judicial system will have to work in close contact with the health sector, regarding policies towards HIV prevention. Cambodia and Thailand have started doing this while framing their National AIDS Policies.

Along with the judiciary and governing bodies, human rights commissions, progressive religious leaders, advocacy groups, media and the victims themselves need to cooperate and work together as a team to make this world value based and not gender based, where honesty and uprightness is sacrificed at the altar of sexual leanings.

Shobha Shukla
(The author is the Editor of Citizen News Service(CNS), Director of CNS Diabetes Media Initiative, and CNS Gender Initiative, has worked earlier with State Planning Institute, UP, and teaches Physics at India's prestigious Loreto Convent. She is an invited journalist supported by the United Nations Development Programme(UNDP) and CNS, reporting on the International Day Against Homophobia from the above-mentioned High Level Dialogue in Hong Kong. Email: shobha@citizen-news.org, website: www.citizen-news.org)

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