Gays neglected in HIV/AIDS campaigns

SOUTH AFRICA: Gays neglected in HIV/AIDS campaigns

JOHANNESBURG, 16 Sep 2004 (PLUSNEWS) - South Africa's homosexuals are finding themselves excluded from safe sex campaigns, despite evidence of rising prevalence rates in the gay community.

According to research presented at a recently held first African Congress on Sexual Health and Rights, anti-AIDS programmes solely targeted heterosexuals, leaving gay men and lesbians at greater risk of contracting HIV.

"The South African government has done absolutely nothing around safer sex education specifically for gay and lesbian people. The entire onus has been shifted to NGOs, and that sector is not capable of coping with such an unfair burden," Evert Knoesen, director of the Lesbian and Gay Equality Project, told PlusNews.

While admitting that current safer sex campaigns focused on heterosexual HIV transmission, the Ministry of Health said it also accommodated gays and lesbians.

"We have taken a multisectoral approach on the issue by urging greater involvement from groups addressing the needs of homosexuals and disabled people. While some groups have presented proposals to us, the Lesbian and Gay Equality Project has made little effort," said health ministry spokesman, Sibani Mngadi.

Knoesen countered that it was "not the responsibility of NGO's to set policies on HIV/AIDS", but acknowledged the lack of action from gay men and women.

"Although there is no justification for government's failure to deliver, there is a great deal more that we, as gay and lesbian people, can do that's not being done."

Knoesen noted that night clubs and sex-on-site venues, where drugs were easily accessible, also contributed to risky sexual behaviour and fuelled the spread of HIV.

"Club owners are pretending that drugs are not being used in their establishments, and this applies to both heterosexual and gay venues. These club owners also pretend that people are not engaging in risky sex practices at the venues and make no effort to provide condoms," he said.

Knoesen added that while club owners benefited financially from the drug trade on their premises, it was unethical, criminal and negligent for them not to take the necessary precautions to protect their patrons.

On a recent visit to a popular gay nightclub in Johannesburg, PlusNews observed the free flow of narcotics and on-site-sex, but no condom vending machines.

One club-goer revealed that ecstasy pills cost around US $13 each, while cocaine and Kat would set a buyer back just over $61 per gram.

Research has shown that use of the stimulant, Kat, is rising. This is not the traditional leaf chewed by the people of eastern Africa and parts of the Arabian peninsula, but a synthetic powder, often compared by users to "crystal meths" or cocaine.

Supplied in small quantities in plastic bags called 'snatches', Kat produces feelings of euphoria, heightened awareness, increased confidence, alertness, energy and sexual stimulation.

An easily accessible labyrinth of "darkrooms" - otherwise know as "chill areas" - on the upper level of the club catered to the sexual needs of many patrons. Besides the lack of condoms, there was also an absence of information on HIV and AIDS.

Lucian (name changed), a gay HIV-positive foreign national, was "appalled" at the lack of HIV/AIDS education in South Africa, even after a recently implemented national antiretroviral drug rollout.

"Governments in developed countries have made the disease a manageable illness, whereas the huge lack of political will and AIDS information in South Africa has fuelled the stigma experienced mainly by poor, black and gay people," he said.

He accused the government of "exhausting" the excuse that South Africa was a developing nation, pointing out that other, less fortunate countries were making strides in tackling the pandemic.

"But while some African countries, like Uganda, have commendable anti-AIDS campaigns and were able to record dramatic reductions in prevalence rates, very little was heard about the impact of the virus on homosexuals."

He noted the silence was all the more deafening in South Africa, with its liberal constitution and even more liberal gay social life.

"For whatever reason, political or otherwise, the subject of men who have sex with men is still very taboo." In order for the issue of risky gay sexual behaviour to be properly addressed, efforts would also have to made to control the flow of drugs in gay venues, he said.

"Most establishments cater for on-site sexual encounters, and with the free flow of drugs, inhibitions are lowered, and the chances of contracting HIV are increased," Lucian added.

"Until the South African government and club owners actually take the initiative, it is entirely up to the gay community to protect themselves against HIV by making use of whatever available protection there is," he concluded.


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