Robert Mugabe finally allows gays and lesbians to Aids conference

HARARE – Zimbabwe has bowed down to local and international pressure and allowed gays and lesbians to man their stand at the on-going Conference on Aids and STI’s in Africa (Icasa) in Harare.

By Barnabas Thondhlana

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Suspected State security agents Sunday pulled down the exhibition stand mounted by the group to display and house its members and sex workers at the conference venue. Their workshop material was also seized at Harare International Airport.

The exhibitors were later allowed to display their wares, following massive protests and lobbying by local and international human rights groups.

Addressing a pre-conference workshop for key people, Kene Esom, the executive director of African Men for Sexual Health and Rights (AMSHeR), said the confiscation of most of their material by the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority (Zimra) had disrupted the group’s programmes.

“The material is still held because the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority is still conducting an assessment on them. The challenge is that we have attended many conferences of this nature and we have never been required to pay duty on such conference material, especially when you had bid to host the conference,” Esom said.

“As you can see, it has impacted on the quality of the pre-conference because we have agenda material and information material for interaction, which we haven’t gotten.”

Esom said when Zimbabwe won the bid to host the conference, his organisation made an effort to lobby Health and Tourism ministers, as well as the National Aids Council (NAC), among other stakeholders, to guarantee the non-discrimination of key populations such as transgender people.

He also disclosed that their exhibition stand was temporarily ransacked and pulled down, after State security agents felt offended by some of the material on display.

Esom challenged the local community to break the silence on same-sex relationships and be more tolerant.

Speaking at the same event, National Aids Council chief executive Tapiwa Magure said it was not fair to discriminate key populations because they would be left behind in terms of accessing vital information. “I want to assure you that we will not discriminate anyone in this country. I want to make sure that information reaches out to everyone,” he said.

President Robert Mugabe has, however, repeatedly sounded his disdain for homosexuality and repeated his anti-gay stance at the just-ended United Nations Summit in New York, the United States.

Mugabe has often described lesbians and gays as “worse than pigs and dogs”.

The local gay population has accused the country of “dodging” the question about the participation and wellbeing of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people in Zimbabwe and those attending the on-going Icasa.

Gays and Lesbians’ Association in Zimbabwe director Chesterfield Samba in a statement said the government had always exhibited homophobic attitudes to these groups, hence it was a high risk population.

“Sex between men is criminalised in Zimbabwe, thus driving them underground and making them difficult to reach with HIV interventions,” he said.

The conference was opened by Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa, where he made a veiled attack on gays and lesbians saying: “We equally reject attempts to prescribe ‘new rights’ which are contrary to our values, norms, traditions and beliefs.”

“This is shocking because if a government bids to hold an international event it must state and specify what materials are charged and what are exempted from paying duty, and conference material are never part of materials which pay duty,” Esom said.

“We came here (Zimbabwe) in July and had meetings with the authorities and they never told us that we should pay duty on conference material; and what this has done is to deprive our constituency of the information contained in the conference material which we wanted to use during our two day pre- conference workshop.”

Icasa kicked off in Harare on Sunday, with more than 5,000 delegates from about 150 countries expected to attend.

The biennial Icasa conference, which is a premier gathering of health personnel, policy makers, people living with HIV and others committed to ending the pandemic, ends on December 4. – African Independent

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