One of the challenges of fighting HIV around the world is the difficulty of reaching those at risk. A new study from South Africa indicates that the homosexual community is at increased risk for HIV, and that widespread homophobia may keep these men from receiving the information and care that they need.
Gay men in Africa face extreme homophobia and violence within their communities, and in many African nations, men who have sex with other men may be imprisoned, or even sentenced to death. Because of this stigma, they are a hidden population, with many keeping their sexual orientation secret.
A new anonymous survey of 1,700 men in South Africa indicates that one out of every 20 has had consensual sex with another man.
“The number of men in South Africa who have had consensual experiences with other men is pretty much on par with every other country in the world," said Kristin Dunkle. "Looking at the findings, pretty much everything had me nodding my head and saying, ‘Actually, that makes a lot of sense.’”
But Emory University professor Kristin Dunkle, the lead author of the report, says she was surprised by the violence that the survey revealed.
“About 1 in 10 men have been sexually assaulted. That’s, I think, a higher number than anyone was really expecting," said Dunkle.
The extent of anti-gay pressures - both social and legal - confronting men in Africa makes it difficult for these victims of sexual violence to seek help. Homosexual men in Africa are at increased risk of contracting HIV, and their access to life-saving HIV prevention and care may be limited. Rachel Jewkes of the Medical Research Council in South Africa led this research.
“It’s very difficult for men who have sex with men to come forward and try and engage healthcare [providers] around HIV-related issues, and so tackling the stigma associated with male-male sexual behavior is absolutely critical," said Jewkes.
The researchers say that these men need more accessible HIV education and aid, especially since they may be putting others at risk.
“A very high proportion, more than two-thirds of the men who’d ever had sex with men, currently have a female partner," she said.
In their report, published in PLOS Medicine, the researchers call for increased HIV education and outreach for the African gay, lesbian, and bisexual community. They also stress the need to counter wide-spread homophobia, both to enable public health efforts, and to reduce the high incidence of anti-gay violence in Africa.