International organizations dedicated to combating HIV/AIDS are issuing a dire warning that Nigeria’s new discriminatory anti-gay laws could cause a major setback in the fight against the disease. We already know that the anti-gay law is a human rights nightmare. But according to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and UNAIDS, it could have profoundly negative public health consequences.
“Almost almost every HIV related grant has some element that deals with populations that include men-who-have-sex-with-men or LGBT groups,” says Seth Faison of the Global Fund. “We know from experience that efforts to criminalize that behavior has a negative impact in HIV work. People get cautious, they get scared and chased underground.”
Nigeria already has the second highest burden of the disease in the world. About 4% of the general population — 3.4 million people — are living with HIV. Among gay nigerians, prevalence is an astounding 17%. (The public health term for this cohort is “men-who-have sex-with-men”). These men are a high risk population, and if you want to fight AIDS in Nigeria, you need to stem HIV among men-who-have-sex-with-men.
There are a number of proven interventions to target high risk populations like this. One example is the “drop-in center” which is typically a discreet office in an urban neighborhood where gay men can go for counseling, HIV testing, and medical care. It is basically a safe space for a stigmatized population, typically operated by an NGO, where health services are delivered.
Under the new law, this sort of common sense health care delivery may become illegal. From a joint press release by UNAIDS and the Global Fund:
The health, development and human rights implications of the new law are potentially far-reaching. Homosexuality is already criminalized in Nigeria. The new law further criminalizes LGBT people, organizations and activities. The law states: “A person who registers, operates or participates in gay clubs, societies and organisation, or directly or indirectly makes public show of same sex amorous relationship in Nigeria commits an offence and is liable to conviction to a term of 10 years imprisonment.”
The law also criminalizes any individuals or group of people who support “the registration, operation and sustenance of gay clubs, societies and organisations, processions or meetings in Nigeria.” The conviction is also 10 years imprisonment.
The provisions of the law could lead to increased homophobia, discrimination, denial of HIV services and violence based on real or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity. It could also be used against organizations working to provide HIV prevention and treatment services to LGBT people.
The law could very well criminalize public health work that targets one of the most at-risk populations in Nigeria. This isn’t just discriminatory. It is terrible public health policy.