Efforts to fight the spread of HIV in Tanzania have been stymied by discrimination against high-risk groups, according to a report published Tuesday by Human Rights Watch.
According to the new findings, widespread police abuse against sex workers, drug users, and men who have sex with men is a major hindrance in tackling the spread of the deadly virus.
“Key populations are not being reached," says Human Rights Watch researcher Neela Ghoshal. "Sex workers are beaten and raped by police, often without condoms, on a regular basis. Gay men are driven underground. People who inject heroin do not know where to get clean needles.”
In a case recounted from a December 2010, an 18-year-old man identified as gay was forced by police at gunpoint to call five gay friends and tell them to meet him at a bar. When they arrived, police arrested the group and brought them to the central station where they say they were repeatedly raped by fellow detainees. The police, victims said, refused to help.
According to the report, Tanzanian law classifies some high-risk groups as criminals. Consensual sex between adult males, for example, carries a penalty of 30-years-to-life in prison, one of the most severe punishments for gay sex in the world. The criminal status, the report indicates, drives gay men underground, preventing them from seeking or receiving medical attention and making them easy targets for human rights violations by law enforcement.
The report says government bodies in Tanzania aren't doing enough to protect these key populations.
“Regardless of what the ethical or religious views of Tanzanian leaders might be, it is important that they see this as a public health issue," says Goshal, explaining that failure to protect high-risk groups creates health risks for the broader population. "You will protect the entire population if you can focus energy and resources on some of these most at-risk populations.”
While Tanzanian authorities have pledged to reduce stigma attached to marginalized groups and work toward decriminalization of same-sex intimacy and sex work, Ghoshal says it is time the government acts on the commitments.
“While you see this kind of discrimination against key populations throughout much of Africa, the impact in Tanzania is particularly severe," she says. "When you talk, particularly to men who have sex with men, they can recount long lists of friends of theirs who have died of HIV/AIDS and these are people who are not getting services.”
The Human Rights Watch report was based on research carried out from May 2012 through April of this year. The group interviewed 121 members of high-risk groups, along with Tanzanian government officials, service providers and academics.