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
"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
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
"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."