NIGERIA has become a flashpoint for the global conversation around LGBTI rights, and much of the world has watched in horror through the passage and enactment of harsh anti-gay laws in the country.

In January this year, the president signed into law a bill criminalising any public displays of same-sex attraction, same-sex marriage, and membership of or association with any lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans* organisations. Punishments for violating these laws include up to 14 years imprisonment.

At the 20th International AIDS Conference in Melbourne this week, increasing attention is being paid to the barriers laws like this pose to addressing the epidemic in countries around the world, including at its epicentre in sub-Saharan Africa.

As groups disproportionately affected by HIV in most parts of the world, men who have sex with men and trans* women are often the focus of these discussions — you can’t treat people living with HIV and prevent new transmissions if criminalisation means people can’t access services.

While the conversation in countries like Australia has focused on what can be done from here to help LGBTI people in Nigeria, or how our own government could bring political pressure to bear, advocates within Africa are working with LGBTI activists on the ground, and warning against interventions made without a proper understanding of local contexts.

Kene Esom is a Nigerian national who now lives in South Africa. He has worked with LGBTI communities all over Africa since he left Nigeria 10  years ago, becoming the Director of Programs for African Men for Sexual Health and Rights (AMSHER), and an international human rights lawyer focusing on democracy in Africa.

He told the Star Observer that for LGBTI groups working in his home country of Nigeria, the prospect of bringing about political change often took a back seat to more urgent concerns: keeping people in LGBTI communities safe.

“They started off being support groups, because members of their community were dying, were being subject to all kinds of human rights violations, and they just felt the need to support each other,” Esom said.

Part of his work in the country, and in the region, is about helping these groups fight for political change at the same time they are supporting and protecting LGBTI communities.

“Those need to happen together. Keeping people safe needs to happen with engaging the government, because the duty of keeping people safe is the duty of the state,” he said.

From outside the country, high level political pressure has been called for as a way for the global community to advance LGBTI rights in Nigeria, and in other countries around the world.

However, Esom argued the rollout of anti-gay laws in Nigeria has been a way for the government to distract from much more fundamental problems, like citizens’ access to basic services like education and healthcare.

“If you can’t give access to good education and good public health facilities to the citizens, and the citizens are trying to change the government because of this lack of delivery, let’s heat up the population with something else. Let’s divert attention from our inadequacies,” he said.

“You look at Uganda, you look at Nigeria, you look at Ethiopia, you look at Liberia, you look at all of these countries that are currently discussing or have passed anti-homosexual laws, there is a huge crisis of governance and service delivery.”

Despite the movement backwards on LGBTI rights in Nigeria, in Uganda and in other countries in the region, Esom said it wasn’t all bad news.

“For instance, some of the things that do not come out, especially in media coverage, is that 17 out of 55 African countries actually do not criminalise consensual same-sex sexual conduct,” he said.

Understanding the complex and diverse social and political contexts across Africa is key to helping promote LGBTI rights in the region for parts of the global community often with the best of intentions. A forum like AIDS 2014 could help initiate those conversations, but for activists working in countries with repressive governments, they could provide even more basic opportunities for dialogue.

Esom explained more progress could often come from chance meetings with government officials outside conference talks than through months of in-country lobbying.

“This becomes an excellent opportunity to run into your health minister for instance and say, this is the situation, I’ve been trying to make an appointment and see you for three months,” he said.

The criminalisation of LGBTI people remains one of the biggest challenges facing those at risk of and living with HIV around the globe. With all eyes on Melbourne for AIDS 2014, the work coming out of the conference could help force progress for some of the world’s most vulnerable LGBTI communities.

(Photo credit: David Alexander; Star Observer)

 

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