We will not banish AIDS until we banish stigma

This blog post was written by David J. Olson, Global Development Communicator and Advocate for Olson Global Communications.

I met Eugene and Dominique at a drop-in center for men who have sex with men (MSM) outside Nairobi, Kenya.

Eugene, 23, comes to the center regularly to get condoms, lubricants, and HIV counseling and testing. So far, he is HIV-negative.


Dominique, 26, also frequents the center. He was treated for a sexually-transmitted infection, and gets tested there every month. He, too, is HIV-negative.

In Kenya, most gay men are very much in the closet, due to the stigma against them. Only 13% of MSM in Nairobi visited an MSM-friendly clinic or drop-in center in the past 12 months, according to the 2010-2011 Integrated Biological and Behavioral Survey among Key Populations.

This is in a country where 40% of all MSM are HIV-positive, according to the Kenya AIDS NGO Consortium, and where “MSM and prisoners” make up 15% of all new HIV infections. HIV prevalence in Kenya on the whole is 5.6%.

Key populations like MSM, people living with HIV, people who sell or buy sex, transgender people, people who use drugs, young people, migrants, displaced people and prisoners are especially vulnerable to or affected by HIV and AIDS. Therefore, they are key populations to reach for HIV services.

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A youth club in Addis Ababa meets regularly to discuss sexual and reproductive health and rights and learn about HIV prevention. Credit: duckrabbit/International HIV/AIDS Alliance

“Because these are the most criminalized populations in most countries, they are some of the most difficult populations to reach with HIV programs,” said Enrique Restoy, senior advisor on human rights at the International HIV/AIDS Alliance. “And when we do, we have difficulty in these populations not having ready access to services, because of this constant discrimination which drives them away from services.”

This week, as the 20th International AIDS Conference deliberates in Australia, we need to place these key populations at the center of deliberations.

Screen Shot 2014-07-23 at 11.49.33 AMAnd we must not forget the young women and men who are often marginalized. Like other key populations, young people at risk are highly likely to experience discrimination and be refused services due to their age, or the need of parental approval. Projects like LinkUp are fighting for the rights of young people to ensure that they get the health services they need.

Unfortunately, it’s still a crime to be gay in 77 countries. Just in the last few months, Uganda, Nigeria and India have all imposed harsh penalties merely for being gay. Other countries are considering such legislation.

In contrast, the Government of Kenya is actually taking a public health approach to most at-risk groups, including MSM, people who use drugs and sex workers.

The Melbourne Declaration, released by the organizers of AIDS 2014, states that:

“We affirm that all women, men, transgender and intersex adults and children are entitled to equal rights and to equal access to HIV prevention, care and treatment information and services.”

Until the human rights of all people are respected, we will not achieve an HIV-free generation.

The International HIV/AIDS Alliance has just published a new toolkit “HIV & human rights” that you can access here.

Sign the petition and tell Congress to keep up the fight against AIDS here.