Efforts to advocate the rights of the gay community in Tajikistan, including HIV/AIDS awareness, face an uphill battle given traditional Islamic values and a general intolerance towards homosexuality.
"Tajikistan is a conservative Muslim country. Such subjects are not easily spoken about," Kiromiddin Gulov, coordinator for the local NGO, Legal Support for Youth, one of the few groups working to address the issue, told IRIN in the capital, Dushanbe. "Homosexuals have no status in this country."
Under a project entitled "Legal Support for Sexual Minorities", the Dushanbe-based group is trying to revise current legislation in the country, as well as provide legal support to individuals as and when necessary. HIV/AIDS and its prevention is one component of the project; a daunting task in this mountainous Central Asian state of 7 million where such topics remain largely taboo.
Working with a small staff of seven, the NGO, with funding from the New York-based Tides Foundation, is one of the first MSM (Men who have Sex with Men) advocacy efforts in the former Soviet republic.
In early 2003, a small survey measuring public opinion was initiated by the NGO, revealing a particularly negative attitude towards gay people, with some people saying they should be killed.
Of the MSM members surveyed, the vast majority maintained the need to keep their identities and status in the country hidden. "They are very, very closed," Gulov said, describing them as "lonely" people.
"Nobody in Tajikistan wants to admit that this sort of sexual orientation exists," Farkhod Fazylov, assistant for the MSM project, concurred, telling IRIN that police were known to harass some individuals once their sexual preference was revealed.
According to the NGO worker, some gay Tajiks were forced into compromising positions by the police, who blackmailed them into disclosing the identity of other members of the MSM community. "Many people are afraid of having their identities revealed to their families," Fazylov said.
It is just such a reality that makes increasing awareness of the threat of HIV/AIDS amongst this group - and others - all the more difficult.
While there have been no reported cases of HIV amongst the group, the risk is still there. "Some male prostitutes here are having between 10 and 15 partners a day," Gulov said, taking as little as US $1 to 2 per sexual encounter. "The MSM community is one of the most marginalised risk groups for HIV/AIDS in Tajikistan."
Azamjon Mirzoev, director of Tajikistan's Republican AIDS centre in Dushanbe agreed. "The issue of MSM, with regard to HIV infection, is a taboo subject due to the conservative nature of society," he told IRIN. "This is a closed topic. We are trying to provide some informal training to this group, but we have had staff members beaten up over the issue."
Assistance to the MSM group in Tajikistan remained very limited due largely to the traditional, sensitive and fragile nature of the subject, he explained, adding: "We are working to address this issue."
Since 1991, some 228 HIV/AIDS cases have officially been registered in the country - the vast majority of them being men - with the health official estimating the real number to be between 3,000 and 5,000.
"In the first four months of 2004, 109 cases were recorded," he said, noting that the main mode of transmission of the disease - 65.8 percent - remained intravenous drug use. He added that in 25.4 percent of cases the cause was not identified.