'Bad' laws hurt sex workers, gays from Uganda to Nepal, AIDS meeting told

Mon Jul 21, 2014 10:01am EDT

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MELBOURNE (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - After Uganda passed a law that punished gay sex with long prison sentences, Daisy Nakato got a visit from the police.

The country's Red Pepper tabloid had outed hundreds of gays after President Yoweri Museveni signed the anti-homosexuality bill in February and Nakato's name was on a list.

Over the following six hours, Nakato, a bisexual sex worker, begged the police not to arrest her.

"I had to stay in hiding for over a week without taking ARV (antiretroviral) medication. A lot of people are going through the same thing. A lot of people have run to neighboring countries," Nakato told delegates at an AIDS conference in the Australian city of Melbourne on Monday.

The law has broad support in religiously conservative Uganda, which is among 37 African nations where homosexuality is illegal.

But one of the major concerns of the gathering of 12,000 AIDS activists, scientists and people living with HIV is how the criminalization of groups at high risk of HIV - such as gay men, sex workers and transgender people - is threatening progress in the global effort to fight AIDS.

Prostitution is illegal in 116 countries, and in 78 countries, having a same-sex relationship is a criminal offense.

"We know that criminalization is bad health policy. It is bad public policy. It doesn't work to prevent the spread of disease. In fact, it does just the opposite," the U.S. ambassador to Australia, John Berry, told a discussion on the state of legislation in India, Nepal and the United States, among others.

"The global fight against HIV and AIDS will not be won by relegating segments of the population to the shadows."

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), female sex workers are 14 times more likely to have HIV than other women, gay men are 19 times more likely to have HIV than the general population, and transgender women are almost 50 times more likely than other adults to have HIV.

Yet the same groups are least likely to get HIV prevention, testing and treatment services, the WHO says.

'BAD HEALTH POLICY'

It's not only gays and lesbians who feel persecuted in Uganda, Nakato said. Sex workers are among those under pressure from an anti-pornography law, locally dubbed the anti-mini skirt law, which seeks to police erotic behavior.

"These laws are just there to drive us underground, to harass us," Nakato told the session.

India gay rights activist Ashok Kavi described the "incredible sense of despondency" after India's Supreme Court reinstated a ban on gay sex in December, following a four-year period of decriminalization that had helped bring homosexuality into the open in the socially conservative country.

Manisha Dhakal, a Nepalese transgender activist, said certain laws in Nepal - while not criminalizing transgender sex workers - were deliberately used against them.

"When we are walking in the street, people are gathered to see us and there are traffic jams because the taxi drivers also want to see us," Dhakal said, adding that the commotion often ended in arrest under the Public Offences Act.

By contrast, the United States is working on changing laws that criminalize HIV transmission, said Nick Rhoades, an American whose conviction for the criminal transmission of HIV in the state of Iowa was overturned last month by the Supreme Court.

(Editing by Ros Russell, Kate Kelland, Jeremy Gaunt and Sonya Hepinstall; Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, covers underreported humanitarian, human rights, corruption and climate change issues. Visit www.trust.org)

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