Sunday, January 30, 2011

African Heterosexual Females Branded By Global HIV Policy

The murdered Ugandan gay activist, David Kato, was one of the victims of a piece of persecution by a tabloid newspaper, Rolling Stone. Rolling Stone published the names and photographs of people they believed to be gay. By the time a judge got around stopping publication the damage had been done.

I can't prove that David Kato was murdered because he had been exposed, I can't even prove he was murdered. But his death illustrates the sort of thing that can happen in a country where persecution of certain people is not considered important enough by the state to give them the protection they need.

The sort of hate and prejudice that lies behind the murder of David Kato exists everywhere, but some countries have laws to protect people from its worst excesses. Most gays can probably remain anomalous, or hope to. But they will all live in fear of discovery. If discovered, they could become victims of police violence, mob violence, persecution, extortion and the like.

But gays are just one group that suffers the consequences of hatred and prejudice. In some African countries, women are equally stigmatized. They can also be victims of violence and suffer injury, persecution and even death because they are a member of a stigmatized group.

Not all women are stigmatized to the same extent. But most victims of sexual and non-sexual violence are women. And the law in many countries gives them little protection, especially if the perpetrator of the violence is their husband or another family member.

In most countries, women are more likely to be poorer than men, live in worse conditions, play the biggest part in raising children, have lower levels of education, have less access to health and other social services and the list goes on. This is a result of prejudice, but of course, this is not the same kind of prejudice experienced by gays.

Women start to experience the kind of prejudice experienced by gays when high HIV prevalence is added into the picture. Fingers are pointed at sex workers and other groups. But in countries where HIV prevalence is highest among ordinary married women who only have one sexual partner, Uganda being a case in point, all women are branded as promiscuous.

Men are also branded as promiscuous, but HIV rates are far lower among men. Even people who just read what appears in the mainstream press suspect they are being lied to when they are told that it's men who go around spreading HIV and yet far more women are infected.

I often ask people for their opinion on how HIV is spread and if they think it's odd that in some places, HIV positive women can outnumber HIV positive men by 5 to one. They sometimes come up with the ludicrous suggestion that there is a small number of men who are responsible for infecting huge numbers of women. They must be very busy and such a group has never been identified.

Not for want of trying. Fingers have been pointed at 'mobile' people, either internal or external migrants, long distance drivers, armies and many other groups. But in the end, the majority of people being infected with HIV are ordinary people with ordinary sex lives. What UNAIDS refers to as 'low-risk' sex is, in fact, very high risk. I think of this as the UNAIDS paradox.

There is no paradox if you bear in mind that not all HIV is transmitted sexually, that some, perhaps a lot, is transmitted through unsafe healthcare and cosmetic practices. Most people are aware of these phenomena but there is a great reluctance to investigate. People prefer to say 'well, you're right, but I still think it's mostly sexually transmitted', or worse.

So I am not arguing that people who are HIV positive, whether they are gay, involved in sex work, injecting illegal drugs or anything else, shouldn't be stigmatized because stigmatizing people is wrong. It is wrong. But HIV positive people shouldn't be stigmatized because we don't know how they became infected. And even if they were infected sexually, that doesn't mean they have done anything wrong.

Anti-gay and other prejudices are not new and they are proving hard to reduce. But Africa suffers from an anti-African prejudice, based on the UNAIDS lie that 90% or more HIV in African countries is transmitted sexually. Effectively, heterosexuals and those who engage in heterosexual sex are the victims of prejudice and stigma.

If anti-gay stigma reduces the number of gay people who take precautions against infection with HIV, anti-African, anti-woman and anti-heterosexual stigma does the same. Few people want to be tested for HIV unless they have to because merely raising the possibility that you are infected invites suspicion, finger-pointing, ostracization, persecution and physical violence.

Like HIV itself, stigma doesn't just arise from 'somewhere else', from foreigners, migrants, Africans, women, right wingers, Muslims, or whatever. Stigma, HIV related stigma in particular, arises from the way society as a whole has come to view sex, all sex. The 'proof' that sex is bad is the existence of a HIV pandemic. But the evidence that the pandemic was driven by sex? Alas, there is none. That's why it's called prejudice.


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