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June 26, 2010

Zambia’s homophobia

By Cynara Vetch

We held tonight’s screening in George, Lusaka’s oldest residential district. It was the centre for freedom fighters of the Zambian independence movement and remains very political today. Paul Kasoukouona is an HIV activist working for the Southern African Treatment and Access Movement he’s been working on HIV/AIDS issues for 10 years he told me “ this is one area where the government can’t even enter everyone is for the opposition. There are elections next year and if there is vote rigging again and the government gets in there will be serious problems, people will be rioting in the streets.”

George has one of the highest HIV rates in Zambia and also the highest crime rate in the country. A lot of this has to deal with high unemployment, Paul explained “ If you lose your job today you don’t know when you will get another. People have big families that expand because of the high number of AIDS orphans that must be supported. When it is 8 people to a room parents encourage their children to go out and do commercial sex work in the evenings. This means more money for the family and space so that they can actually fit into their accommodation.”

Paul was contacted by SAfAIDS to lead a discussion with the community leaders about HIV  related issues. One topic which was raised was the issue of homosexuality and lesbians. Initially the leaders denied that there were any gay or lesbian individuals in their communities. Same sex relationships are considered a foreign issue and unZambian this view is exacerbated by the fact that the head of the National AIDS council is a bishop and strongly against homosexuality on religious grounds. The Vice President’s son is homosexual and estranged from his family. The Vice President is pushing for a law to be enacted that encourages people to inform on known homosexuals and lesbians so that can be sent to prison.

Paul works with 2000 gays and lesbians in Lusaka, he is the only straight man in Zambia who speaks out about homosexuality and says that “All my activist work has been difficult but this project in particular has cost me a lot, there are some jobs that will refuse to hire me because I have worked on this issue.” He is lobbying on behalf of gays and lesbians because he believes that “we must use every scientifically proven prevention to stem the spread of the virus” and he has never thought that “you can use Christianity or morality to deal with public health issues.”

Initially tackling the concerns of same sex relationships and HIV was “like hitting a rock and nothing was moving” but now underground groups of lesbians and homosexuals have been set up whose members include doctors, teachers and lawyers and the movement is growing. In this meeting at least there was a consensus that there are same sex partnerships exist in George and HIV and AIDS must be tackled within these relationships as well. However it will take many more such discussions to create an open environment in Zambia which accepts lesbians and gays and enables them to access to treatment and prevention for the virus.

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