A woman walks past a billboard promoting male circumcision to combat Aids in the capital, Harare. (Pic: Reuters)

Zimbabwe: The LGBTI community’s struggle for healthcare access

A woman walks past a billboard promoting male circumcision to combat Aids in the capital, Harare. (Pic: Reuters)
A woman walks past a billboard promoting male circumcision to combat Aids in the capital, Harare. (Pic: Reuters)

Seated on a bench in a clinic in Harare, Taenda Tavira (not his real name) waited patiently for his turn. As he entered the consultation room, the nurse asked: “How can I help you, young man?” Tavira didn’t know where to begin but he managed to point at his pants, mumbling something. Annoyed, the nurse snapped: “You are not the only one to be served, don’t waste my time.”

The young man gathered himself and with difficulty said he thought he had contracted a sexually transmitted disease. As he removed his pants in front of the nurse, she shouted: “I knew when you entered that something is wrong with you! Are you a man or a woman?” Stunned, Tavira pulled up his pants, walked out of the room and never went back.

This wasn’t the first time he was treated this way.

“I, like every other gay person, has to give in to a lot of insults and degrading inhuman utterances every day,” Tavira confides after relating the recent incident. He is open about his sexuality and the discrimination he faces at the hands of health personnel in Zimbabwe.

For Zimbabwe’s LGBTI community, disclosing one’s sexual orientation is a major barrier to getting accurate, appropriate and relevant medical treatment. Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (Galz) is an organisation that works to protect the interests of this minority group in the country. Its programmes manager Samuel Matsikure highlighted that as Zimbabwe’s leadership has openly denounced homosexuality, discrimination and stigma against the LGBTI community goes unpunished and will take a long time to uproot.

President Robert Mugabe has made it clear that homosexuality will never find a place in Zimbabwe. “Homosexuality degrades human dignity. Its unnatural and there is no question of allowing these people to behave worse than pigs and dogs … If you see people parading themselves as lesbians and gays arrest them and hand them over to the police,” he said in a speech at a Harare book fair in 1995. More recently, he maintained that “gays have no human rights” and reportedly called for the arrest of gays and lesbians who don’t conceive children.

This state-endorsed homophobia has made it difficult for Galz to get HIV and Aids prevention messages out to its 2100 members and the LGBTI community at large, who face a backlash from government and society and receive no support from public health institutions. About 15% of Zimbabwe’s adult population is living with HIV and Aids. There is currently no data available on the LGBTI community specifically.

“The hostile environment the gay community is exposed to, especially at health facilities in the country, has impacted negatively on their rights to basic services such as health,” Matsikure said. “Some have been keeping sexually transmitted infections for six to eight months without seeking help.”

“Such discrimination and stigma at the highest level makes our lives difficult and we remain a secretive and isolated community always fearing for our lives,” Tavira added.

Zimbabwe’s Constitution promotes universal access to health, enabling every person, regardless of their sexual orientation, to be treated with respect and have access to healthcare and support. The every day reality, though, is very different.

In a bid to address this, Galz has engaged the Zimbabwean government, the National Aids Council (NAC) and Zimbabwe Doctors for Human Rights to educate them about the LGBTI community.

“We have held sensitisation workshops with stakeholders to root out ignorance and misinformation associated with the LGBTI community. Hostility, and beliefs systems deep rooted against the practise of same sex relationships in the country will need to be reversed,” said Matsikure.

While Zimbabwe’s Constitution stipulates healthcare for all, it also outlaws same sex marriages. The gay community continues to be marginalised, making the fight against HIV and Aids all the more difficult. “The intersectionality of HIV and Aids between the broader heterosexuals and LGBTI community is a reality. If we are to reduce or end new infections, end deaths from Aids, end stigma and discrimination in Zimbabwe no one should be left behind,” said Matsikure.

Sally Nyakanyanga is a freelance journalist and media trainer based in Zimbabwe. 

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