by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Associate Editor
The Global Forum on MSM & HIV (MSMGF) announced on December 10 the launch of an ambitious international initiative to address rising rates of HIV among men who have sex with men (MSM) by working to reduce stigma, discrimination, and violence against this marginalized population. Supported by a consortium of funders, including ViiV Healthcare's Positive Action Program, the Levi Strauss Foundation, and Hivos, the landmark project signals a growing recognition of the connection between homophobia and the spread of HIV.
'We are thrilled to announce this exciting new initiative on International Human Rights Day,' said MSMGF Executive Officer Dr. George Ayala. 'Every person deserves the right to fair treatment and freedom from persecution. The more we learn about HIV, the more we see that working to eradicate stigma, discrimination, and violence is essential to securing the right to health for MSM. Until recently, stigma and discrimination were not seen as serious drivers of the epidemic. This represents a major turning point, and we are proud to stand with our partners as we tackle this crucial issue head-on.'
According to MSMGF officials, the technical assistance (TA) program will support grassroots activists in Central America, North Africa, and Southeast Asia with trainings and funding to develop and implement innovative rights-based advocacy projects. By building the advocacy capacity of local activists to reduce stigma, discrimination, and violence against MSM, the initiative aims to reduce rates of HIV among this hard-hit group.
'Beginning with an in-depth assessment of local advocacy capacity, the program involves multiple levels of trainings tailored to the specific conditions in each target country,' said Krista Lauer, MSMGF policy associate. 'Ultimately, the idea is to prepare a substantial number of local activists with the tools and resources they need to create locally relevant home-grown initiatives. While stigma and discrimination seem to be nearly universal, we believe a diverse set of locally-developed solutions presents the best hope to make a real impact.'
A body of literature indicates a strong connection between human rights violations and negative health outcomes among sexual minorities. Past research among MSM has linked experiences of social discrimination and violence with poor mental health, increased substance abuse, and higher levels of sexual risk-taking.
A recent qualitative study conducted by the MSMGF among 39 MSM and Transgender people from 27 countries has added to mounting evidence that even the most basic HIV prevention and treatment interventions have been severely undermined by stigma and discrimination.
'Stigma and discrimination keep large numbers of Gay men around the world from accessing essential health resources,' explained Michael Joyner, director of positive action at ViiV Healthcare. 'They just don't feel welcome at healthcare facilities.'
MSM experience higher rates of HIV than the general population in nearly every country that reports reliable epidemiological data. In many cases, these differences are extreme. In Central America, for example, Honduras recently reported HIV prevalence rates of 12.4% among MSM, as opposed to 0.8% in the general population. On average, MSM in low- and middle-income countries are 19 times more likely to be infected with HIV than the general population.
'It is our hope that, through this initiative, we can address both the insidious problems of social discrimination and the skyrocketing rates of HIV in our communities,' said Dr. Ayala. 'After all, without addressing one, we cannot address the other.'
The new technical assistance program will begin early next year.
The Global Forum on MSM and HIV (MSMGF) is an expanding network of AIDS organizations, MSM networks, and advocates committed to ensuring robust coverage of and equitable access to effective HIV prevention, care, treatment, and support services tailored to the needs of Gay men and other MSM. Guided by a Steering Committee of 20 members from 17 countries situated mainly in the Global South, and with administrative and fiscal support from AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA), the MSMGF works to promote MSM health and human rights worldwide through advocacy, information exchange, knowledge production, networking, and capacity building.