GOVERNMENT has reportedly clamped down on foreign gays and lesbians attending the International Conference on Aids and STI’s in Africa (ICASA) in Harare and seized their workshop material at Harare International Airport, NewsDay has reported.
This came as suspected State security agents yesterday pulled down an exhibition stand mounted by the group to display and house its members and sex workers at the conference venue.
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, NAC 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.
Meanwhile, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS (UNAids) yesterday marked the ICASA official opening with a call for countries to further accelerate their response to Aids.
The conference is taking place in Harare this week against a backdrop of great progress in the Aids response, even though stakeholders in the health sector still face a number of challenges in reducing the spread and impact of the disease. “Africa is on the brink of breaking the Aids epidemic.
We have no time to lose. We have five years to fast-track the Aids response,” UNAids executive director Michel Sidibe said at a Press conference in the capital. UNAids is introducing its new fast-track strategy which involves front loading investments in the Aids response to reach an ambitious 90-90-90 treatment target by 2020, where 90% of people living with HIV would be in a position to know their status and an equal number accessing treatment . 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.”