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Misery of being gay in Lesotho and the fight against HIV

…HIV prevalence among men who have sex with men a concern under the spotlight for People’s Matrix

Billy Ntaote

His attackers knew nothing and were ignorant and never thought deeply what it means to be loved and to live freely to make one’s own choices without being limited by rigid cultural norms.

Rethabile (not his real names) was assaulted, raped for not conforming to what society expected him to be, a woman due to his physical features.

His case commonly referred to as corrective rape, left him violated and led to him falling pregnant, a development that further left him broken, helpless and hating himself, suicidal and indeed he ended taking his own life.

He was a transgender man, and he ended being robbed of his life by criminals for the choices he had made.

He ended taking his own life, but his case is but one among many cases of stigmatisation, being denied or discouraged from accessing basic services and living freely in the everyday life of Lesotho’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer (LGBTIQ) community.

In a recent change of policy, the People’s Matrix Managing Director Tampose Mothopeng says the Lesotho Minister of Gender Mahali Phamotse has softened the hard stance she found her ministry holding onto and initiated conversations with the LGBTIQ community.

This act by Phamotse, Mothopeng characterised as a step in the right direction towards protecting the fundamental human rights of Basotho who are not conforming to gender roles society imposes on them.

But, Angel Thoko, the People’s Matrix Key Populations Officer, says in the wake of 32.9 percent prevalence of HIV/AIDS among men who have sex with other men, there is a dire need for a concerted effort to sensitize Basotho against stigmatising, denying or discouraging its a community from accessing basic health services.

Thoko, being a transgender woman herself, says Lesotho must do more to fight HIV/AIDS and ensure no one is left behind as the country works hard to meet United Nations 90/90/90 targets.

She says she doesn’t want to be put into boxes, “I don’t conform to any particular gender roles. But I prefer to be called a transgender woman, after having gone through surgery”.

She says Rethabile who had not undergone the same surgery due to its costliness, ended falling pregnant and without proper care and psychosocial support ended taking his own life.

She says cases like that of Rethabile can easily be avoided with the society opening up and speaking about LGBTIQ and realising the need to protect the community’s rights.

Sexual assault is linked to the spread of HIV/AIDS, and vulnerable groups like the LGBTIQ are faced with incidents of corrective rape, people like Rethabile are at high risk of either being infected with HIV/AIDS and worst case being forced to take their own life.

Thoko says society’s discriminatory and stigma towards the LGBTIQ are some of the things that are today contributing towards the continued spread of HIV/AIDS as the LGBTIQ community continues to find it hard to access health services.

“On HIV/AIDS our community is faced with the fear of seeking HIV/AIDS services due to fear of being stigmatised as many health professionals still have negative attitudes towards gay people.

“But this also goes back to the rigid cultural believes we have a society.

“As the People’s Matrix, we are currently working on sensitizing healthcare professionals to provide LGBTIQ friendly services,” says Thoko.

Thoko further said the organisation is engaging religious leaders on issues of sexuality and spirituality as part of sensitising them on the need to protect rights of the LGBTIQ community.

“We are doing this through a project in which we host dialogues with religious leaders. This is done in partnership with the Christian Council of Lesotho to integrate sexuality and spirituality,” she said.

Efforts to arrest HIV prevalence among MSM

Thoko adds that their organisation is also working in partnership with the Lesotho Planned Parenthood Association (LPPA) in selected districts and men’s clinics in Maseru, Mafeteng, Mohale’s Hoek, Leribe and other districts.

“These are designed for men who have sex with other men (MSM). Also for people who are in the closet. We have sensitised men’s clinics on issues of men who have sex with other men. The main reason is that HIV prevalence among MSM is very high in the LGBTIQ community as it stands at 32.9 percent.

She warns the rights and freedom of the LGBTIQ community is a national issue that affects all Basotho as their not only living in isolation but are part of the social fabric of the society.

According to Avert, UK-Based Global information and education on HIV and AIDS organisation report that HIV prevalence among men who have sex with men (MSM) is estimated at 32.9 percent in Lesotho.

The Avert report also points that recent data on men who have sex with men from Maseru and Maputsoe, being major urban areas, were found to have only 56 and 61 percent of men had tested for HIV at least once and condom usage is estimated at 62.2 percent.

Avert also mentions that respondents in both Maseru and Maputsoe study on men who have sex with men reported experiencing stigma, human rights abuses, particularly verbal abuse, blackmail and physical aggression.

Avert also noted that “many were too afraid to access health services because of these experiences”.

Thoko says People’s Matrix has also seen a need to sensitise the members of the Lesotho Mounted Police Service (LMPS) through its various projects.

“We saw sensitising police as an important aspect as our community members do not want to or fear reporting cases to the police.

“Cases of sexual assault and violations are not reported mainly by the LGBTIQ community. Most at risk once again are the MSM due to the stigma associated.

“We do have various stories of men who have sex with men who are sexually assaulted by their partners or other people which go unreported, and are only reported to our organisation.

“We also have stories of corrective rape on transgender man and lesbians,” Thoko says as she narrates the ordeal faced by the LGBTIQ community.

Referring to Retahbile’s story, Thoko, with teary eyes said in one instance “we had a case where someone was raped”.

“He was a transgender man. He was raped and ended committing suicide as a result of the pregnancy that followed the rape”.

People’s Matrix interventions to assist MSM

Thoko says the People’s Matrix has a number of interventions it is implementing to protect the LGBTIQ community and mainly lesson the HIV prevalence among the MSM.

“We also hold public gatherings (Lipitso) through the help of Chiefs. These we do to deter and sensitize people. We do get positive responses nationally and our gatherings are well attended.

“We’ve found cases where parents came to us and reported having their own children being born gay and not having known how to raise them and or help them live their lives better,” She said.

Talking about the organisation’s linkages program, Thoko says the program is targeting HIV prevention among men who have sex with man.

“We are working in community councils across the country. To mention but a few, we have operations within the Maseru City Council, Makhoarane Community Council, Maama Community Council, Mohlaka Community Council, Qiloane Community Council and others.

“We also have a project called PUSH implemented in partnership with the Lesotho Planned Parenthood Association (LPPA) in Maseru, Mafeteng and Mohale’s Hoek. The major focus is on MSM,” says Thoko.

Thoko says currently the People’s Matrix is undertaking the various programs due to high HIV prevalence among MSM.

“The Lesotho Population Health Survey (LePHIA) study says the prevalence among our community is high in those communities. And other locations are covered by project run by Global Fund,” she said.

She also adds that in Roma, in the Maama Community Council, People’s matrix has within its Linkages program a facility referred to as “Drop-in Centre”.

“The Drop-in Centre is friendly for men who have sex with other men. There are services like HIV testing and counselling provided at this facility and the provision of Anti-retroviral.

“We also have at the projects, lay counsellors for HIV Testing and Services for LGBTIQ community. But the project is tailored for MSM. We also have peer educators to provide Health Education,” says Thoko.

Thoko says the programs are meant to ensure the safety, and ease of access to health services for LGBTIQ community and lessen cases of suicide.

She says there are still fears in reporting officially the case of Rethabile’s rape to the police as her suicide has them still reeling in shock even though much has since passed.

Thoko says she believes their efforts on arresting the high prevalence rate among men who have sex with men will soon have positive rewards.

She adds that many other services are buddle to the HIV/AIDS services to ensure the LGBTIQ community can all be served at one safe space where they can freely access services so that no one ever gets pregnant like Rethabile after rape and go on to fear stigma at both police and health centres.

She says Rethabile’s case shall never be forgotten like many that suffer in silence, but it has ignited them to work even harder for the rights of the LGBTIQ community across the country.

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