Tanzania’s Anti-Gay Stance Risks Escalating the HIV Crisis

The Tanzanian government has moved to end HIV programs serving gay people, claiming that foreign NGOs have been “encouraging” same-gender relationships through safe sex programs.

Reuters reports:

Ummy Mwalimu, Tanzania’s minister for health said the government had received reports that some local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) were promoting and normalizing same-sex relationships as part of their HIV programs.


In September, the government threatened to ban groups that “promote” the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in its first public statement against the minority group.

“We have suspended MSM (men who have sex with men) community-based interventions pending (a) review,” Mwalimu told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The decision is just the latest part of a worrying trend that first gained international attention in August. At the time, Tanzania’s justice minister reportedly stated that the government would actively work to suspend registration for all NGOs that appeared to tacitly support homosexuality.

To be clear, Mwalimu’s statement impacts not just NGOs that campaign for LGBT rights, but also those who advocate for safer-sex practices among the LGBT community as part of wider health strategies.

While colonial era anti-sodomy provisions are written into Tanzania’s laws, there isn’t a strict prohibition against same-gender relationships. Technically, people who are found guilty of breaking the law could be jailed for up to 30 years, but arrests under this specific provision are rare.

Compared to nearby nations like Uganda and Kenya, Tanzania has, therefore, appeared relatively permissive of same-gender relationships — though by no means welcoming.

That sentiment, however, appears to have shifted. But what initiated this crackdown?

It’s hard to specifically identify a flashpoint, but reports indicate that local officials — including Paul Makonda, the regional commissioner for Dar es Salaam — began saying in July of this year that they supported a crackdown against LGBTs to curb perceived Western influence and a general erosion in moral standards.

The effort also followed an unprecedented partial ban on the sale and supply of sexual lubricants. This, the state health minister contended, was to prevent gay people from having sex and to cut down on the spread of HIV.

It’s important to emphasize that this isn’t solely a targeted anti-gay action, but part of a wider political crackdown — and unfortunately, one we have observed in other nations.

In July of this year, Tanzania’s President John Magufuli stated that he would show “no mercy” to opposition forces — or those he has dubbed ”troublemakers.” 

Magufuli, who was elected late last year, was initially seen as a positive political influence because of his sweeping use of power to weed out corruption. However, human rights advocates soon grew concerned that Magufuli showed an appetite for authoritarian rule.

This kind of behavior, as has been observed in countries like Uganda and Zimbabwe, rarely bodes well for women or sexual minorities. Thus, this crackdown on health programs for gay people is likely symptomatic of a wider state effort to weed out any actions defined as “un-Tanzanian”.

Specifically, the impact on Tanzania’s fight against HIV is worrying.

John Kashika of the Community Health Education Services & Advocacy NGO, explained: ”This is essentially denial of services to people who are at the highest risk of contracting HIV, there’s going to be a lot of implications.”

An estimated 1.4 million people live with HIV in Tanzania, and just over half of those individuals receive antiretroviral treatment.

Tanzania’s HIV outbreak is one of the most challenging in the world. As of 2013 — when comparative data was last issued — the country appears to shoulder a burden far higher than many other nations of its size.

In fact, at the time, Tanzania accounted for about six percent of total HIV infections across all of sub-Saharan Africa and four percent of all people living with HIV globally.

Tanzania has made significant strides in the past decade, however — particularly in terms of increasing access to antiretroviral treatment.

But the issue here is that men who have sex with other men are known to be disproportionately impacted by HIV. By blocking this population from accessing detection and treatment, Tanzania effectively risks damning MSM to higher HIV rates —  a decision that will inevitably translate to higher infection rates among women and children.

Human rights groups will continue to monitor the situation, but they have made the stakes clear: Tanzania risks all the progress it has made in the fight against HIV by failing to support LGBT people and foreign NGOs.

Not only is this decision entirely against Tanzania’s human rights commitments under both civil and international law, but it also risks a massive step back in the global fight against HIV/AIDS.

Photo credit: Thinkstock.


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