World AIDS Day (WAD) on December 1, 2009, was commemorated under the theme ‘Universal Access and Human Rights,’ which will foreground global observances on HIV over the next year. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon placed on record a strong message urging the repeal of “punitive laws, policies and practices that hamper the AIDS response.” He was clear that laws which institutionalize discrimination against sex workers and men who have sex with men only serve to fuel the HIV epidemic and prevent cost-effective programmes. While we commend these calls consistently being made at the international level, SASOD is alarmed that even the rhetoric at home seems to be wearing thin. In an ambiguous interview reported just a week before WAD in the Stabroek News of November 24, 2009, Minister of Health Dr Leslie Ramsammy has said that he does not view homosexual sex as criminal but at the same time it would be a mistake to impose decriminalization on the nation. There also seems to be some confusion that decriminalization is equivalent to legalization, as Minister Ramsammy is also quoted saying “Criminalizing it is wrong, but that doesn’t mean we should legalize it either.”
Responding to Minister Ramsammy’s comments, SASOD Co-Chairpersons, Namela Baynes-Henry and Joel Simpson took issue with his dubious positions. “Minister Ramsammy needs to lead Guyana’s HIV response to live up to the commitments to universal access and human rights the government has made abroad,” charged Henry, who represented SASOD last year at the United Nations High Level Meeting on HIV and AIDS where Minister Ramsammy acknowledged the need to address antiquated laws which stigmatise marginalized groups. “Why is he ‘singing a different tune’ now? Minister Ramsammy should ‘talk the talk’ and ‘walk the walk’ as Guyana has signed UN declarations to that effect,” she added. Picking up on this point, fellow Co-Chair Simpson added, “If the Political Declaration on HIV and AIDS means nothing to Minister Ramsammy, then the Guyana government should not have signed on. Why are we putting on one face on the international stage and then when we are at home it’s a different story? That just smacks of hypocrisy.” Simpson continued that “I want to remind Minister Ramsammy that these discriminatory laws were imposed on us by our colonial rulers. Decriminalizing behaviours of stigmatized minority groups, which should not have been criminalised in the first place, is in no way an imposition on the majority. The state is duty bound to protect its minorities, regardless of what opinion polls say. This is the true test of any real democracy – how well we protect our minorities.”
Minister Ramsammy’s reported remarks had seemingly marred the climate for advocacy on “universal access and human rights” but thankfully civic organizations were brave and bold where political courage is apparently now diminishing. First, the Clerical and Commercial Workers Union (CCWU) in its WAD message called for all vulnerable groups including sexual and gender minorities to have equal access to HIV prevention without discrimination, as this is critical to halt the spread of the disease. “Same-sex relationships must be decriminalized so that these persons dare to exercise their rights and seek health services,” its statement unequivocally said. Following on, the National AIDS Committee (NAC) its WAD press release called for rights-related barriers to universal access to be addressed, including the failure to decriminalize same-sex intimacy which discourages men who have sex with men from seeking health services and tackle homophobia promoted by religious dogma, popular culture and negative masculinities. We salute the CCWU and the NAC for their principled positions on these issues.
Even as the United States Embassy in Georgetown announced its renewal of support for the next five years to HIV response in Guyana through the President’s Emergency Fund Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), we are concerned that the funding allocated for prevention programmes is not reaching the most affected communities. “While national HIV prevalence in Guyana has been declining, and that is to be commended, HIV prevalence among MSM in Guyana remains scandalously high at an unrestrained 21 per cent,” said Ian McKnight, who is the new Executive Director at the Caribbean Vulnerable Communities Coalition (CVC), a regional coalition which supports frontline organizations working with vulnerable groups. “I am dismayed that in a Caribbean country with such elevated rates of HIV among MSM, that existing community-based organizations advocating for the health and human rights of these groups are not able to access funds to implement prevention programmes,” he noted. McKnight was referring to a recent debacle between USAID’s local PEPFAR programme in Guyana, and SASOD.
This past July, SASOD was invited by the Guyana HIV & AIDS Reduction and Prevention Phase II project (GHARP II) to participate in an institutional assessment to determine if SASOD meets USAID’s eligibility criteria for funding. On July 27, 2009, SASOD was formally notified by GHARP II on behalf of Community Support and Development Services Inc (CSDS), local funding agent for USAID, that SASOD was approved to receive funding for the financial year October 2009 to September 2010 contingent upon participation in the funding process laid out by CSDS and GHARP II. SASOD participated in a series of NGO work-planning activities culminating in the submission of a work plan and budget for funding on August 14, 2009 and receiving feedback for revisions from GHARP II and its affiliate, Management Sciences for Health (MSH), on August 24, 2009. On Monday, August 31, 2009, at 8:45 hrs, SASOD received a telephone call summoning a representative to an urgent meeting at 10:00 hrs that day for all the NGOs involved in the funding process.
At that meeting, a representative of USAID in Guyana, Edris George, announced that due to a decrease in the overall PEPFAR budgetary allocation for 2010, that out of the 3 new NGOs to be funded, SASOD and a CBO working on HIV prevention with vulnerable groups, would not be receiving operational funding.
This announcement was subsequently confirmed in writing in an email sent by a CSDS staffer on September 2, 2009. SASOD responded to USAID, CSDS and GHARP II by email on September 7, 2009, calling out the homophobia SASOD has experienced with a CSDS official, and rejecting any form of collaboration or partnership with USAID, CSDS and GHARP II other than that which was originally proposed to receive direct funding. To date, 3 months later, none of these agencies has responded to the concerns raised by SASOD directly with them.
Reacting to these reports, Dr Robert Carr, Co-Chair of the Global Forum on MSM and HIV (MSMGF) expressed disappointment that frontline organizations working with vulnerable groups are not equally able to access resources to implement prevention programmes. “This is a huge blow to community-based efforts to stem the tide of HIV among MSM in Guyana,” Dr Carr posited. “The local PEPFAR programme has lost a golden opportunity to make inroads in providing prevention services to key populations which are very hard to reach,” he added.
As we approach the next United Nations General Assembly Special Session on HIV and AIDS (UNGASS) review and reporting period in 2010, Guyana is still missing the mark in terms of attaining universal access for HIV by failing to reach key populations necessary to halt the spread of the epidemic.
It seems as if the promise to “stop AIDS” is the proverbial ‘comfort to a fool’ for communities most affected by the stigma and spread of the disease.