Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Caribbean Laws Criminalizing Homosexuality Hampering Efforts To Fight HIV/AIDS, Should Be Repealed, Officials Say

via the Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report

HIV advocates and health officials in the Caribbean recently called for a repeal of laws in the region that criminalize male-to-male sexual contact during the eighth annual Pan Caribbean Partnership Against HIV/AIDS, the CMC/Antigua Sun reports. The CMC/Sun reports that HIV prevalence among men who have sex with men in the region is "very high," and supporters of efforts to repeal such laws say the legislation hinders efforts to fight HIV/AIDS among MSM. The Bahamas repealed its law banning homosexuality in the early 1990s, and Cuba never had such a law, but "someone has to take the initiative" to strike down such laws in other Caribbean countries, Peter Figueroa, head of epidemiology and AIDS programs in the Jamaican Ministry of Health, said.

Figueroa said that repealing such laws could help decrease discrimination against MSM by sending a signal that they should not be excluded from society. He said inclusion of the MSM population is "important because when people see themselves as excluded or discriminated against and stigmatized, it promotes risky behavior," which could increase the possibility of HIV transmission. Figueroa added that repealing the ban would help "promote personal responsibility for safe sex."

According to Figueroa, it is "difficult for [people in the region] to understand the public health argument" that such laws are "outdated" and "contribut[e] to the [HIV] epidemic" because many people in the region believe homosexuality is "immoral." He said his motives for supporting the repeal are based on public health concerns. Although Figueroa said officials are "respecting whatever views there are concerning the morality of [homosexuality]," policymakers, health workers and advocates should look at the act "from a public health perspective, ... recognizing that [a repeal] will help to reduce the spread of HIV."

According to the CMC/Sun, the "next major hurdle" in the effort to repeal such laws is to persuade politicians, such as Jamaica's Prime Minister Bruce Golding, who "have long maintained that they would not commit political suicide by taking actions not popular with their constituents." However, political support for repealing such laws is increasing, with political figures like Dominica's Health Minister John Fabien offering support, CMC/Sun reports.

Juliette Bynoe-Sutherland, a Barbadian lawyer, said that although she is not convinced the "political will is there" to repeal the acts, she does think the "awareness building is there." Bynoe-Sutherland said that "what is increasingly going to happen is that there is going to be a constructive discussion using public health, using approaches to improving the health systems...that would allow the politicians to do what they have to do for all communities" who are at risk of HIV/AIDS (CMC/Antigua Sun, 11/10).

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