Drive homophobia out of Indian Health Ministry

According to a news published in The Hindu, the Indian Health Minister has denied that he referred to homosexuality as 'unnatural' or called it a 'disease.' In this age of social media, Mr Minister, video recording of the speech you gave is online here. Mr Minister, you clearly described homosexuality coming from foreign shores into India and also as unnatural (in Hindi language). India's Union Health and Family Welfare Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad (source: Press Trust of India (PTI), 4 July 2011), had said: "Indian Health minister Ghulam Nabi Azad described homosexuality as a "disease" and regretted that despite being "unnatural", it now afflicts a substantial number of people in India." As per this news,he added: "The disease of 'Men having Sex with Men' (MSM), which was found more in the developed world, has now unfortunately come to our country and there is a substantial number of such people in India."

According to the National AIDS Control Organization (NACO), which functions under the leadership of Azad, working with MSM is one of the high priority area for NACO. The NACO priority and thrust areas states that: "Sub-populations that have the highest risk of exposure to HIV will receive the highest priority in the intervention programmes. These would include sex workers, men-who-have-sex-with-men and injecting drug users."

Azad said last week while denying these remarks that: "In our country, we have reduced it [HIV] by 50 per cent, so far as new infections are concerned. We have not only reduced it, but we are continuing with our policy to reduce it further. What is worrying for us is we have not been able to reduce this number for MSM. That is a cause for worry because their location and persons are not known. There is only an estimation that MSM are 400,000."

Homophobia drives the population underground. That is why Azad is not aware of 'location' and 'numbers' of MSM in India. There is enough evidence to demonstrate that unless affected communities are meaningfully, genuinely engaged and in the centre of the response, not much can be achieved.

Azad and India's Health Ministry needs to trust the community and the knowledge that lies with them because effective solutions will come forth then from within the community. That is why Azad is able to say today of the decline in new HIV infections in populations such as sex workers (community gets the credit Azad).

The government needs to drive homophobia out at least from Ministry of Health first and engage those working with MSM or transgender communities with dignity, invest resources and work with other partners to provide a safer and more supportive legal, policy, social and cultural environment for them to provide services. Unless community is central to HIV responses for MSM and transgender, how else will India see a drop in new HIV infections in these populations? Is there any other way for India to have a better sense of the population than engaging communities with dignity?

Bobby Ramakant - CNS 

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