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Swaziland: Reaching out to gays for the first time


Integrated Regional Information Networks - February 14, 2012

MBABANE, 14 February 2012 (PlusNews) - If caught, any Swazi engaged in a same-sex relationship will be arrested and jailed. But public health officials are using Valentine's Day to urge gays to trust promises of confidentiality and test for HIV.

"February is known as the month of love, when couples express their love for each other through gifts, especially on Valentine's Day. The purpose of our new campaign, called 'The Love Test', is to encourage couples to undergo HIV testing," said Simon Zwane, Deputy Director of Health.

He acknowledged that in Swazi society gay sex is taboo but said the health ministry was actively extending its reach to include gay couples in HIV counselling and testing.

"Couples need to be consistently aware of their HIV status. This will result in them making joint decisions on risk reduction in their relationships," said Zwane.

Swaziland's HIV prevalence has remained the world's highest for years, with about a quarter of all adults living with HIV.

Several NGOs, including the Alliance of Mayors' Initiative on Coordinated Action against AIDS at the Local Level (AMICAALL) and the family planning company, PSI International, are partners in the nationwide campaign, the first health initiative in the small impoverished country to acknowledge the existence of gays and welcome them to make use of HIV testing and counselling services.

"Just admitting that there are gays in Swaziland is a big step for a government ministry," said Alicia Dlamini, a HIV testing counsellor in Manzini, the country's industrial hub.

Three months ago the Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, Magwagwa Gamedze, a traditional chief appointed by King Mswati, dismissed a recommendation by a United Nations working group on human rights that Swaziland enact a law to protect gay members of society. Gamedze said so few, if any, gays live in Swaziland that the bother of drafting such a law was not worth the effort.

"It was difficult for government to formulate a policy on homosexuals or enact a law to recognize them because they actually formed a minority if ever they existed. Their numbers do not permit us to start processing a policy," the justice minister said.

Very little information is available on same-sex couples in Swaziland and no gay organizations are involved in "The Love Test" campaign. The Gays and Lesbians Association of Swaziland (GALESWA), formed in the 1990s, has only one known member.

The constitution does not safeguard the rights of homosexuals, and sodomy laws dating from the early 20th century are still on the books. King Mswati has reportedly called same-sex relationships "satanic", and Prime Minister Barnabas Dlamini has called homosexuality "an abnormality and a sickness".

Human rights groups regularly criticize Swaziland for its anti-gay laws, and note that discrimination against gays is routine and acceptable in the conservative society of this small country.

"AIDS is not a 'gay disease' in Swaziland. It is almost entirely spread by heterosexual relationships... No one blames gays for AIDS in Swaziland, they just blame gays for being alive and being gay, so it is hard for a gay person to risk exposure," Alicia Dlamini pointed out.

Dlamini's fellow HIV counsellor, Thamie Shongwe, feels the health ministry's Valentine's campaign to test couples will fail to attract same-sex couples.

Lucky Gama (not his actual name), 24, a gay auto mechanic, agreed. "A lot of gays are afraid that if they go to get tested they will be found out and disgraced. Maybe the police will be called to arrest you, because this is Swaziland." There is a high level of mistrust. "I have heard of my gay friends say they are in fear because there is a test they give you without you knowing it that shows if you are gay," Gama said. "I did get an HIV test but it was at school when all the students volunteered to take a test, so the testers were not on the lookout for gays."


Copyright © 2012 -Integrated Regional Information Network, Publisher. All rights reserved to Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN) . Reproduction of this article (other than one copy for personal reference) must be cleared through the Integrated Regional Information Network.

Information in this article was accurate in February 14, 2012. The state of the art may have changed since the publication date. This material is designed to support, not replace, the relationship that exists between you and your doctor. Always discuss treatment options with a doctor who specializes in treating HIV.