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HIV/AIDS: MSM meeting stirs controversy at HIV conference

ADDIS ABABA, 5 December 2011 (IRIN) - A meeting to address issues around HIV and men who have sex with men went ahead as scheduled in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on 3 December, despite protests and calls for its cancellation by local religious leaders.

The meeting – held a day before the opening of the 16th International Conference on AIDS and Sexually transmitted infections in Africa (ICASA) – was organized by the South African-based NGO, African Men for Sexual Health and Rights (AMSHeR). Originally due to be held at a local hotel, the venue quietly shifted to the UN compound in Addis Ababa. According to participants, it attracted more than 150 participants from 25 African countries, and focused on addressing the problems MSM faced in accessing HIV services. Speakers included UNAIDS executive director, Michel Sidibe.

Before the meeting, four religious leaders had called a press conference to denounce it. Ethiopia’s Minister of Health, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, persuaded them to cancel the press conference, but that did not stop anti-gay activists from trying to force the cancellation of the meeting.

A dossier handed out to journalists by anti-gay activists read in part: “Hosting a meeting of such kind in this country is to be inconsiderate of the country’s culture and morals of the people”, adding that the meeting “would tarnish and dirty our culture".

“Even at the new venue, there were hundreds of protesters outside for half the day,” said one participant, who preferred anonymity. “There is a misconception that the meeting was about promoting or encouraging homosexuality; it was actually a very productive discussion about ensuring that MSM are able to access the same health and HIV services that are freely available to the rest of the population.”

A 2009 study of the HIV risks of MSM in Addis Ababa found a “non-negligible” number of men having sex with men in the city at risk of HIV; the authors concluded that there was a need for open discussions within wider efforts to combat the epidemic.

Many Ethiopians were also against the meeting, and believe homosexuality goes against their culture. “To justify a meeting that talks about something against laws of the country in any way is really disappointing and shows lack of respect to a country’s culture, norms and convictions,” said Dandinih Sendekie.

Homosexuality is illegal in Ethiopia and punishable by between three and 10 years in prison. While the government allowed the meeting to go ahead, gay rights activists doubt it will lead to a positive change for MSM in Ethiopia.

“We are arrested by the police... that is part of daily life here,” said the activist, a member of Rainbow Ethiopia, an NGO that deals with the sexual health of MSM. “The attitude of many Ethiopians, including medical staff, means that it is very difficult for men who have sex with men to have their health and HIV issues addressed.”

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Theme(s): HIV/AIDS (PlusNews),

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]