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Opinion

As Anti-LGBT Violence Surges Globally, HIV Services Suffer

December 22, 2015

Francela Mendez Rodriguez of Colectivo Alejandria was the tenth trans woman to be murdered in El Salvador in 2015. Credit: MSMGF

Francela Méndez Rodríguez of Colectivo Alejandría was the tenth trans woman to be murdered in El Salvador in 2015. Credit: MSMGF

Like many LGBT activists, Francela Méndez Rodríguez served in dual roles. She worked to combat stigma and discrimination through Colectivo Alejandría, an advocacy organization she helped create in 2010. She also implemented HIV programs in her community as part of the Global Fund's project in El Salvador.

In May, Francela's efforts on behalf of her community were cut short by violence. She was murdered by unknown assailants while visiting the home of a friend, who was also killed during the attack. According to Front Line Defenders, she was the tenth trans woman to be murdered in the country in 2015. She was 29 years old.

Francela's case is far from isolated. For many people who provide HIV services to LGBT populations, managing violence has become a part of the job. Attacks against clients, volunteers, staff members and leadership have been recorded around the world, and their impact on HIV services has been devastating.

Until now, reports of violence against LGBT people at the global level have been largely anecdotal. In an effort to paint a clearer picture of violence against LGBT people and the impact on HIV services worldwide, the Global Forum on MSM (men who have sex with men) & HIV (MSMGF) has released a new report that provides data on anti-LGBT violence in 90 countries around the world and a comparative look at physical and sexual violence by region.

The results are striking, indicating high levels of violence across all regions. More than a third of MSM in the Caribbean, Eastern Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and North America have been physically assaulted because of their sexual orientation. Over two-thirds know someone who has been attacked.

The new MSMGF report provides data on anti-LGBT violence in 90 countries around the world. Credit: MSMGF

The new MSMGF report provides data on anti-LGBT violence in 90 countries around the world. Credit: MSMGF

Country-level statistics are even more revealing. For example, a 2013 study by the community-based organization EQUAL GROUND reports that 90% of transgender people surveyed in Sri Lanka had been sexually assaulted.

The numbers themselves are staggering, but they tell only half the story. They fail to convey the savagery of many of these attacks. Often the violence is extreme, with targets crushed, raped, mutilated and set on fire. The perpetrators are frequently people in authority, effectively cutting survivors off from systems for protection, justice and health care.

LGBT activists and community-based organizations are often the most visible among our communities, raising their risk of being attacked. Offices have been ransacked, homes have been burned and community leaders have been brutally murdered. Some of these cases have been publicized, but many more have not.

When violence is directed at LGBT activists and organizations, the effects extend far beyond damage to the immediate target. Services offered by activists and organizations are interrupted, and people who need these services cannot access them. In some cases, multiple organizations have shut down leaving entire communities without access to lifesaving HIV prevention and treatment.

Following an attack on a clinic called KEMRI that served MSM in Kenya, local activist Peter Njane spoke of the impact on HIV services.

Offices have been ransacked, homes have been burned and community leaders have been brutally murdered. Credit: MSMGF

Offices have been ransacked, homes have been burned and community leaders have been brutally murdered. Credit: MSMGF

"People used to get their [HIV medicine] at KEMRI. While it's been closed, there is no provision of condoms and lubricant, no medical services for this community," Njane said. "Some of these things, like lubricant, aren't available anywhere else ... Some of the men who were attacked are not sure they will be able to go back and work as peer educators."

Without the ongoing work of grassroots activists and organizations, LGBT people around the world would be unable to access the kinds of HIV services we need. It is incumbent upon all levels of the global HIV response to recognize the primary role LGBT activists and organizations play in providing access to services for LGBT people, as well as the realities of the contexts in which they work -- including high levels of violence.

MSMGF's new report ends with a series of recommendations for HIV funders, heath institutions and community-based organizations to help prevent, mitigate and document anti-LGBT violence when it occurs. Recommendations include establishing security measures for community-based organizations and anti-violence programs targeting police, health care workers and the media.

Numerous examples of effective anti-violence programs are provided, many developed by LGBT activists and organizations that provide HIV services to LGBT communities.

As the world turns its attention to the UNAIDS' ambitious goal for 90% of people with HIV to know their status, 90% of people who know their status to be in treatment and 90% of people in treatment to have undetectable viral loads by 2020, we must address the factors that undermine access to HIV services for populations most affected by HIV, including LGBT people. Funders and policymakers must recognize anti-LGBT violence as a problem that demands solutions to keep our activists and service providers safe. It is the right thing to do, and we cannot achieve an AIDS-free generation without them.

Jack Beck has worked in international LGBT health and human rights for the past ten years. He began his career by supporting grassroots LGBT groups in China to develop local HIV prevention programs, and he directed communications for the Global Forum on MSM & HIV (MSMGF) until 2015. He currently serves as the founding executive director of TurnOut, a new organization working to connect LGBT volunteers with LGBT nonprofits.


Copyright © 2015 Remedy Health Media, LLC. All rights reserved.


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