Senegal: Jailing of gay activists sets back AIDS fight

Plus News
International AIDS organisations have condemned the imprisonment of nine Senegalese AIDS activists for their sexual orientation, saying it threatens to reverse gains made in Senegal's fight against HIV.
The men, who were involved in providing HIV prevention, care and treatment services to Senegal's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, have been sentenced to eight years in prison.
Homosexuality is punishable by up to five years in prison, according to the Senegalese penal code. In this case, the judge added three years for criminal conspiracy.

In a statement released last week, the International AIDS Society, which promotes new HIV research and best practice and is the custodian of the International AIDS Conference, and the Society for AIDS in Africa (SAA), which works to slow the spread of HIV, said criminalising and discriminating against any group of individuals only served to fuel the HIV epidemic by denying services and relevant prevention messages.

"The arrest of these men, based purely on their sexual orientation represents a major setback for the Senegalese response to HIV, which is widely viewed as a model in Africa," said Joanna Mangueira, President of the SAA.

Cheikh Niang, professor of anthropology at Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar, the Senegalese capital, and author of studies on AIDS and sexuality in the country, agreed that jailing the activists was "counterproductive".

"The severity of the sentence has created an atmosphere of panic amongst the associations that are working on HIV prevention and treatment with men who have sex with men (MSM)," he told IRIN/PlusNews.

Michel Bourelly of AIDES, an international organisation working with men who have sex with men in Senegal, said gay activists had gone into hiding or fled the country since the judgement. "Everything has stopped. The associations that provide HIV/AIDS services for homosexuals and MSM are too scared to work."


According to Bourelly, the men were arrested while attending a meeting on HIV prevention. Brochures, condoms and model penises were confiscated as pornographic material.

"The condoms that were considered pornographic material during the trial were provided by the Senegalese government," he pointed out.

''Everything has stopped. The associations that provide HIV/AIDS services for homosexuals are too scared to work'' Stigma and discrimination against Senegal's LGBT community, already high, escalated early in 2008 after a local magazine published photographs said to depict a wedding ceremony between two men. The release of five men arrested for allegedly participating in the wedding sparked violent protests in Dakar.

A young gay member of an HIV/AIDS organisation serving MSM in Senegal, who did not want to be named, confirmed that intolerance of homosexuality had risen.

"Physical violence is more common now. Before we had groups which helped us – they gave us the courage to meet. We would do work on prevention, but now it's too dangerous," he said.

The jailed men were detained just two weeks after Senegal hosted the International Conference on AIDS and STIs in Africa (ICASA), where speakers emphasised the importance of addressing the needs of sexual minorities in African AIDS programming. Over 50 gay activists attended.

In an interview with IRIN/PlusNews in November 2008, Souleymane Mboup, President of ICASA, said MSM were a reality in Africa that could not be ignored.

"This is a question that we cannot run away from if we want to advance [the fight against HIV]," he said. "Many countries, including Senegal, must open their eyes and learn. We must think about which strategies to adopt."

In 2007 the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria granted Senegal US$32 million to strengthen its HIV/AIDS response. Part of the grant was earmarked for targeting "vulnerable groups", including MSM, with prevention campaigns, condoms and MSM-friendly clinics over the next five years.

"Senegal has been given considerable sums of money to address the needs of MSM in its national AIDS programme," said Bourelly. "But now they are jailing the people they are supposed to be targeting."

No one from the National AIDS Committee, one of the two principal recipients of the Global Fund grant, was available for comment. Abdoulaye Wade, director of the AIDS division at the Ministry of Health, told IRIN/PlusNews that the government continued to provide HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment services for MSM, but did not elaborate on what those services were.


Joel Nana, advocacy director at the South African office of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), said Senegal had been praised for its progressive and inclusive HIV/AIDS programmes in the past.

"Senegal was the first country in Africa to address MSM in HIV programming, so this [judgment] is really a step backwards," he told IRIN/PlusNews.

While Senegal has maintained a low HIV prevalence of about one percent in the general population, official data and studies conducted at Cheikh Anta Diop University suggest that about 21.5 percent of MSM were HIV positive in 2005. The studies also found that over 80 percent of MSM had female as well as male partners.

"It is a considerable error to think that this is just a homosexual problem," said Bourelly. "Most MSM have had, or continue to have, sex with women, so the impact of effectively shutting down MSM programmes will be considerable on the general population."

Human rights groups and AIDS organisations are calling for the immediate release of the nine imprisoned men, and for a change in Senegal's penal code. Niang agreed that it was time to debate the merits of the law.

"There is no point in saying that men who have sex with men do not exist in our societies," he said. "It exists and it is an ancient phenomenon. By ignoring its existence we will not respond appropriately [to the HIV epidemic]."

19 January 2009