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Cameroon Takes Steps To Work With Gay Men As A Key Population At Higher Risk Of HIV 

By Helen Ngoh In Washington DC

CameroonPostline.com — Recently, US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, addressed a plenary sitting of the World AIDS Conference. In her speech, she said, “If we’re going to beat AIDS, we can’t afford to avoid sensitive conversations, and we can’t fail to reach the people who are at the highest risk.”

For several years now public health officials in Cameroon have been doing just that – avoiding sensitive conversation and failing to reach one of the key populations at the highest risk of HIV infection, men who have sex with men.

Homosexuality is a highly contentious subject in Cameroon. It is a crime punishable by imprisonment or fines, and public opinion is overwhelmingly against gay men. So when public health experts, politicians and activists, (most of them out of Cameroon) say that government needs to pay attention to men who have sex with men, MSM, at least in the response to AIDS, there is bound to be controversy.

Since the start of the AIDS epidemic, it’s been known that men who have sex with men or MSM are more vulnerable to HIV. Research explains that the common practice of receptive anal sex, which is very risky in terms of HIV transmission, is what makes them so vulnerable. 

Despite this knowledge, MSM in Cameroon were more or less ignored by public health interventions in response to AIDS for decades, as opposed to other key populations like sex workers, students and truck drivers. Before 2011, only one organisation known as Alternative Cameroun, had any HIV prevention activities targeting MSM.

Yves Yomb, who works for this non profit, says “In 2010 we were alone at Alternatives Cameroun, to try to do something for men who have sex with men.” Yves was among the few who dared to look for MSM in Cameroon, to educate them on safer sex practices and distribute HIV prevention material like condoms. He could have been arrested and jailed at anytime for these activities.

In a society where gay men and bisexuals are considered outcasts, demon possessed and morally corrupt, it is difficult for people to understand why MSM should be catered for. “Some of these so-called gays also have wives, sometimes because they want to but mostly because they desperately need to hide the fact that they are gay,” says Yomb.

“Because a majority of men who have sex with men are bisexual, if nothing is done to target MSM, it is very possible that current efforts to keep prevalence rates down may be not be as effective.” For years, the global AIDS community has asked that African countries like Cameroon stop discriminating against men who have sex with men. At the just ended World AIDS conference in DC in July, several high profile speakers emphasised on the issue.

It came up in US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s plenary address. “In low-and middle income countries, studies suggest that HIV prevalence among men who have sex with male partners could be up to 19 times higher than among the general population”, she said. “Humans might discriminate, but viruses do not… If we want to save more lives, we need to go where the virus is and get there as quickly as possible.”

There has been some progress, though. In 2011, men who have sex with men in Cameroon were officially named as a key population at higher risk of contracting HIV. In addition, more than ten other organisations have joined Alternatives Cameroun to target MSM with HIV prevention activities. 

Yves Yomb is grateful for these baby steps but says it is not enough, because while MSM are recognised as a key population on paper, it does not translate to action on the field. “We don’t have specific material for men who have sex with men. We continue to have a problem of lube; we continue to have a problem of specific information about men who have sex with men sexuality.”

Plus, MSM are still considered criminals in Cameroon and several other African countries – something the international community describes as a human rights violation, and activists consider an impediment to an effective AIDS response. Openly gay British musician, Elton John, who participated at a session during the World AIDS conference, said “Do you want to curb new infections with MSM in Africa?

You’re not gonna do it by stoning gay men, passing law against homosexuality… show compassion to all of your people, like President Joyce Banda of Malawi does.” President Banda wants to overturn a ban on homosexual activity in Malawi. If she is successful, Malawi will be only the second African country since 1994 to allow same sex relationships.

Yves Yomb of Alternatives Cameroun has a request for the government of Cameroon. He says “Cameroonian authorities want to do something for MSM that is good. But it will be better if this law which criminalises homosexuality will be cut from the penal code.“

First published in The Post print edition No. 1365