Why are women and girls falling out of our HIV response?
Though the core of my career has been spent working in HIV, in recent years I’ve refocused that effort on what we call sexual citizenship, fighting to make sure people are valued and included and taken care of in our society, regardless to their sexuality. It’s what the national public knows me best for. That usually means fighting public officials and politicians to understand why gay men are as important as straight women.
But I got appointed to a regional HIV body recently. And at my first meeting in that role, I found myself in a really queer position—a bit alone fighting regional HIV advocates and officials to pay more attention to women and girls. I wasn’t really being a noble champion; a lot of it was self-interest.
If we aren’t solving HIV risk for girls, we certainly won’t solve it for gay men. Because it has the same root. We seek affirmation and meaning through intimacy in parallel ways, make similar mistakes, get hoodwinked by masculinity in shared ways. Gender is what puts almost everyone in the Caribbean, who is, at risk for HIV. Transgender people, sex workers, village rams.
And that’s why the unholy international alliance among churches to make the idea of gender and any public policy related to it a bad word is so dangerous. Because the campaign against gender is not just combating the abortionists and feminists and homosexual liberationists, it’s harming the young girls in California, Couva and Brooklyn, Laventille it prevents us from developing honest and effective sexual programmes for, or vaccinating for cervical cancer. It leaves us with the tools of silence and shame, Bible verses and beating their private parts—as a well-known Thusian leader has been reported to.
Fundamentalism won’t solve HIV, return us to a past world that will prevent it, or help us build a healthier nation. But it can lead us to do things that have no principle. Last week, 12 French cartoonists who made sometimes vile racist and Islamophobic cartoons were killed in an attack on their publication’s office. Last year, Spiritual Baptist Bishop Roland Gulston told the local media all homosexuals need chopping down. Last weekend, the Evangelical association put out a release most media companies other than the one I write for ignored. It asked political leaders to discredit a UNAIDS poll released in October. The poll had tried to build support for political leadership on HIV by showing popular support for things like sexual education, not discriminating against gays, and state protection of people with HIV from unfair treatment. Something Government has dragged its feet over for three years since the Equal Opportunity Commission asked HIV be added to the Equal Opportunity Act. The evangelical leaders in their release vowed to continue doing HIV work.
That’s why people like me are supposed to be grateful that planners and financiers of the global HIV response make Governments who want their money prioritise what we call “men who have sex with men” in programming and spending. Sometimes they are the only ones effectively forcing governments to allocate any resources or thinking to HIV among groups that are socially unpopular, seen as sexually reckless, or blamed for the epidemic. As opposed to the innocent women and girls infected. A key funder of the regional HIV response has made men who have sex with men and sex workers the overwhelming focus of a new round of funding my meeting was called to map out programmes in response to.
But like human rights, it’s about fighting for principle, not populations. Fighting for what’s best for the epidemic, not just what’s best for me. And women and girls belong in the top priorities of the Caribbean epidemic, however much other vulnerable groups need support and advocacy against institutional neglect. Out of principle.
And that’s my issue with the Evangelical leaders whose congregations’ marginal votes Kamla and Keith will be fighting over this year. They don’t seem to have any principle. And inevitably politicians who seek their votes end up not having any either.
His first week of work, a new employee of mine arrived in Kingston for “a human rights conference”, as he answered the immigration officer’s question about the purpose of his visit. Although he’d said nothing more, the officer, noting his dreadlocks, asked his opinions on homosexuality. Taken aback and trained as a lawyer, he asked whether that was an immigration question. The officer replied that he was asking because when people talk about human rights, they only talk about homosexuality all the time. I told my meeting colleagues that story this week, because ending HIV requires making sure we don’t turn it into the same thing. She may not remember, but I need to be able to look Marcella Liburd, the St. Kitts health minister and my chair, in the eye and say I kept my promise to her at a meeting years ago, where I sat near to her and Douglas Slater, now the CARICOM assistant secretary general, and promised them that I would fight for women and girls and stand up to international donors in defining what our Caribbean response to HIV needs to look like.
I need to become a more skilful advocate for girls. Even when they’re not in the room. Because my own future and the principles of how we respond to the HIV epidemic depend on it.
Forging the liberty to love: one nation…many bodies…boundless faith