On Wednesday 17th May, we acknowledged the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia. It is a day of solidarity and global action by individuals, communities and politicians to strike a blow against the stigma and secrecy that surrounds HIV and AIDS.
This stigma, sometimes propped up by discriminatory laws has a secret but deadly impact on the ground. According to UNAIDS, men who have sex with men in East and Southern Africa have the highest HIV prevalence rate in the world. These men steer clear of government run HIV services where they can often be met with hostility and abuse; some die needlessly.
The Elton John AIDS Foundation is the leading HIV philanthropic donor in this fight. To truly achieve zero new infections and zero deaths by 2030 - the global goal of the United Nations - reaching and supporting these men is crucial. We have made it our mission to work with local organisations doing the dangerous work of offering HIV testing, treatment, counselling and advice, to stand with them in this climate of fear and repression.
In February, we went to Kenya, Uganda, Malawi, Zambia and South Africa, crossing Eastern and Southern Africa, to see for ourselves the daily challenges faced by organisations reaching men who have sex with men, LGBT communities and sex workers and learn how they strive, innovate and save lives. We saw first-hand how organisations we fund tackle this challenge on different fronts.
Fundamentally, homophobic laws need to change, so in Malawi we work with CEDEP, which advocates for legal change and provides human rights education. Nurses, doctors and administrators in hospitals and clinics also risk violent backlash by serving LGBT patients, so CEDEP works intensively to sensitise and support these frontline workers, helping them to provide safe, secure, unprejudiced support.
Grass roots services are also crucial. In Kenya, LVCT Health runs community clinics, makes home visits, drives out to local community hubs with mobile outreach services, or supports men through social media and text messaging. Reaching sex workers in the region is some of the most challenging and invisible, under-the-radar work carried out by grassroots organisations. Discrimination and fear drives sex work underground and HIV prevalence and AIDS deaths are many times higher for sex workers than the general population.
The HOYMAS clinic, located in Nairobi is festooned with rainbow-coloured curtains and walls, comfortable rooms where people can sit and talk, where staff treat visitors with warmth, dignity and respect, a far cry from the stigma and discrimination experienced by these men elsewhere. To maintain this clinic as a safe space, these brilliant interiors are camouflaged by a sharply contrasting, sober exterior - so much so that no one can guess who works there or who visits, and for what purpose. Another clinic we visited is hidden behind a car mechanic's workshop.
Friedrich Conrad, Grants Portfolio Manager, feels strongly that "the most important lesson we’ve learned from seeing the frontline work up close and personal is that even where stigma is endemic and resources are extremely limited, lives can be saved with care and tenacity. With leadership, imagination and understanding of the local context, these organisations and their workers are saving lives in near-impossible situations."
Through our funding over the past 12 months, organisations in East and Southern Africa have reached over 575,000 men who have sex with men, with 80,000 people receiving a HIV test.
Anne Aslett, Executive Director of the Elton John AIDS Foundation adds, "We have made it our mission at the Foundation to support these organisations, because ending AIDS means we cannot leave anyone behind. Everyone deserves the information and services to protect themselves and others. If we don’t support this work, who will?"
We support vital lifesaving work by CEDEP, HOYMAS and many others where stigma is life threatening for LGBT communities. We need your help to keep this crucial work going.