‘Transgender is not gay’

19th September 2017
The Programmes Lead at ARASA, Lynette Mabote Source:The Midweek Sun

Deeply-embedded homophobic and transphobic attitudes, combined with a lack of adequate legal protection against discrimination continue to expose Key Populations (KPs) to dreadful violations of their human rights in Africa. Their plight was the focus of discussions for representatives of National Human Rights Institutions (NHRI) and civil society organisations (CSOs) at the 2nd Regional Capacity Strengthening Convening for NHRIs and CSOs in Johannesburg, South Africa.

The three-day meeting, hosted by the AIDS and Rights Alliance for Southern Africa (ARASA) highlighted the diversity of vulnerable groups of people exposed to daily human rights violations such as HIV infection, lack of access to health services and wrongful detentions. Key populations are people who are vulnerable to HIV (men who have sex with men, people who use drugs, sex workers, transgender people, prisoners and those suffering from tuberculosis). Sharing her experience, Zimbabwean transgender and human rights activist, Ricky Nathason described her ordeal in Zimbabwe as one of harassment, torture, humiliation and above all, segregation. Born with male sexual organs, Nathason said she had always felt female and made a conscious decision to live as a woman.

That decision would come with a host of nightmares for her. She shared how she once got arrested for using female toilets. “I was handed over to the riot police, facing charges of wearing female clothes, masquerading as a woman and using female toilets,” she said. Nathason adds that many people, helped by the media which she accuses of being ignorant about issues of sexuality, misconstrue being transgender for being gay. Mary Mwagi, a sex worker from Kenya, shared that just walking around carrying condoms is often seen as a sign you are a sex worker and you get arrested. “If you are taking medication, having access to it while in custody is very difficult. They say it’s your fault, you should have carried the medication around the same way you go around carrying condoms,” said Mwagi. Lynette Mabote, the Programmes Lead at ARASA said the legal and policy environments in the region pose barriers and criminalise people for hosting a virus or bacteria.

“People who need to access HIV, TB and sexual and reproductive health services (SRH) are still failing to access them (medical services),” she said. Mabote said in 1998 UNAIDS defined “HIV risk” as the probability or likelihood of a person becoming infected with the virus. Certain behaviours create, increase, and perpetuate risk. In July 2014, the World Health Organisation consolidated guidelines that called for “HIV Prevention, Diagnosis, Treatment and Care for Key Populations.” Implications for programming both public health and equity considerations underlie the need to prioritise and improve HIV services for key populations. Reflecting on the workshop, Esther Gumboh, a researcher at the Centre for Applied Legal Studies based in the School of Law at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg said said there is need to invest more time in understanding the challenges key populations face before a decision is made to intervene. “There is need for consultation and research.

Of particular interest to me are the research gaps in the issues concerning the detention of persons with mental disabilities. This is something I hope to take up,” she said. Annabel Raw, is a human rights lawyer working for the Southern African Litigation Centre, a regional human rights organisation whose role is primarily to support lawyers and organisations at country level to take up human rights cases in courts and to provide technical support for legal advocacy. She said that ARASA’s workshop was important because NHRIs are really valuable and have great potential to provide access to justice, accountability and safe and effective remedies on HIV-related human rights violations and for key populations in particular.

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