Group photo

The right to health is one of the privileges enshrined in most freedom charters and constitutions around the world. Yet despite gains in controlling the spread of HIV& AIDS in Africa, the virus has continued to spread at an alarming rate among LGBTI communities especially those living in rural areas, due to restricted access to health services. The three day regional dialogue hosted by INERELA+ and AMSHeR in a bid to enhance knowledge, reduce stigma and discrimination and produce creative collaboration, have been held in the backdrop of HIV and AIDS statistics that show that homosexual men and other key populations have a higher risk of contracting HIV than those of the general population and yet have limited access to health services due to stigma and discrimination.

Two panel discussions were held, the first had representatives from Religious Leaders speaking on the progress that has been made so far in their countries and the challenges they face in relation to advocating for LGBTI rights.  Denial of the existence of the LGBTI community, legal frameworks with double standards and the lack of political will to change has hampered the provision of comprehensive health services to the LGBTI community.    It was agreed that within such legally punitive systems, platforms to speak about the LGBTI  community will not just be easily instituted and accessed but that that every opportunity that presents itself to create them should be used. Testimonies from the LGBTI community of their experiences with Religious Leaders and institutions, in the second panel discussion, brought home the reality of the exclusion, rejection and hurt some people harbour. Yet, through it all, there is still a strong desire for acceptance into religious circles and to belong to a collective worship group for communal spiritual nurturing.  There was also a strong acceptance of the influence and power that Religious Leaders wield which inadvertently means collaboration is inevitable. This was a positive regional dialogue during which both Religious Leaders and the LGBTI community reported an increased knowledge of the concerns and an improved
capacity and desire to take action to address the issues within their communities.  The burning issues that came out of the dialogue were the continued need for mutual respect and acknowledgement of related hurt as the engagement conversation around these issues progresses.

All in all, Religious Leaders challenged the LGBTI community to be bold, courageous and consistent in their dealings with them. Running away from centres of worship is not the answer but only creates an ‘out of sight out of mind reality’. Wisdom and shrewdness are also pivotal when dealing with a potentially divisive issue. Disrespectful, outright condemnation from either side will only lead to alienation, resistance and further polarisation. The bottom line is that no one group can get to “zero” without the other- as long as there is a group of people which do not have full enjoyment of their human rights, suffer stigmatization and discrimination, getting to “zero” will remain a  pipedream.