Between sexuality, gender and rights: A story from Sub-Saharan Africa

sub-saharan africa

Both the majority of worldwide countries  (38 out of 76) criminalizing same-sex sexual activities and the one with the first constitution in the world to explicitly prohibit unfair discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation (South Africa) belong to the African continent.

Last month the first ever African Same Sex Sexualities and Gender Diversity (ASSGD) conference took place in Pretoria, South Africa. A country that in these matters has carried out some other legal steps that constitute records world-wide. In 2006 it became the fifth country in the world –and the first in the continent- to legalise same-sex marriages and it is one of the few countries where it is explicitly permitted to change gender on official documents (the others are Australia, New Zealand, Spain and Argentina).

“The reality on the ground is very different from the laws”, says He-Jin Kim, the representative at the conference of GenderDynamiX, a South African Human Rights organisation dedicated to promoting the rights of transgender people and one of the organizers of the event.

“The so called ‘corrective rape’ of lesbians is very common in black townships in South Africa. Besides, while the law allows changing gender without the need for actual surgery its implementation is lacking and it is rare that transgender people succeed in accessing this legal provision. There is also little access to transgender related healthcare and in light of the gravity of the HIV epidemic in South Africa, it must be noted that sexual health services are for the most part inaccessible to transgender people due to prevailing stigma and ignorance”, she says.

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AIDS treatment in an out of gender

aids treat part one

A dendritic cell


Although the decrease is not sufficient, the first therapeutic AIDS vaccine, designed from the dendritic cells of the actual patients by the Hospital Clinic of Barcelona-IDIBAPS in the framework of the HIVACAT, the Catalan programme for the development of therapeutic vaccines and prevention against the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), has achieved a significant response in the majority of patients.

The trial I results of the study (three more will come), which counted on an international collaboration with teams from France, the Hôpital Pitié-Salpêtriére and the Université Pierre et Marie Curie in Paris/INSERM,  and the USA, the National Institute of Cancer in Maryland, have been just published in the International Journal of Infectious Diseases.

The final aim of the therapeutic vaccine is to minimize the use and to avoid a life long treatment with antiretroviral drugs that, because of their expensive and a life long administration, bring about a great economic burden. Besides, there is no experience over the long term and it is not known if the treatments could bring about resistance, which they happen to do if not well taken, while some of them have proved to bring about side effects (for instance cardiovascular diseases.

“AIDS is unique among the infectious diseases since it is the only one that we cannot cure in spite of having very good drugs”, says Teresa Gallart, immunologist at the Hospital Clinic and one of the 17 authors of the study (9 women and 8 men).

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Gender inequality as HIV social driver

hiv sadik

According to the UNAIDS (UN programme on HIV/AIDS) 2010 report 22.5 out of around 33.3 million people globally living with HIV live in sub-Saharan Africa, where young women between 15 and 24 years old are 8 times more likely than men to be HIV positive. 80% of the women living with HIV worldwide live in the region.

Gender inequality remains one of the main HIV social drivers. According to the UNAIDS report the HIV epidemics and sex and reproductive health are intertwined. HIV related causes contribute to at least 20% of maternal deaths and countries with high HIV rates also have high teenage pregnancy and unsafe abortion rates while very few countries involve men in reproductive health programmes. Violence and HIV rates are also often associated.

Eastern Europe and Central Asia are the only regions where the number of people living with HIV has almost tripled since 2000. The proportion of women living with HIV is also growing. Female sex workers, people who inject drugs and men who have sex with men, whom remain often underserved in HIV prevention, treatment, care and support, account for most of the new infections both in these regions and worldwide.

Nafis Sadik is Special Adviser to the UN Secretary General and UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Asia and the Pacific. As former head of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) she became the first woman, in the history of the United Nations, to lead one of its major voluntarily funded programmes. She is an expert on international maternal and child health, reproductive and sexual health, including family planning, on population and development and gender and development. She was born in Pakistan and lives in the United States.

In its action items on gender equality the UNAIDS 2010 report calls for the need of countries to address the needs of men who have sex with men through prevention interventions that go beyond health service provisions. What could these be and where are there positive examples that go this way?

We need to make men more responsible and educate them in the importance of women and in the need to keep them safe.

The issue has to be discussed also at policy level because even if now many governments have special programmes for men who have sex with men they haven’t changed the laws in their countries (for instance 79 countries criminalize same sex relations between consenting adults) nor they address the problems of the laws enforcement agency.

The effort is now for governments to have public advocacy programmes at national, regional and local level also by talking to religious and tribe leaders and to strengthen attention and prevention of HIV and AIDS.

HIV is socially not accepted and so are MSM (a medical and social research designation for men who have sex with men). Many of these men are also married, so they go to their male partners, get infected and then bring the infection back to their female partners. In a sense, there is a need not only to prevent HIV among them but also to protect the general population.

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“Gender-based violence is systematically being questioned throughout a fallacy”

miguel lorente

Forensic doctor, since 2008 Lorente is the delegate of the Spanish government for Gender-based Violence.

In an article of yours recently published in Pikara Magazine entitled “El posmachismo está aquí”( Post male-chauvinism is here) you state that “The critical reaction towards equality is not very different from those that took place before when trying to put an end to privileges of blood, religion or race”. What privileges do you think you have for being a man today in Spain?

I think I am a little different man in this sense. Since I was a child I was aware of the privileges that I had for being the son of a rural town doctor, but I did not want them because they did not depend on me. I wanted to be more myself in the sense of being one more, to be able to keep in touch with more people, to break the norms of behaviour that were supposed I would have followed for being the son of the doctor, for being a man.

Nevertheless men do have privileges, the fundamental of which is being a man in an unequal society. It is not the fact of obtaining certain things as much as that all of them are designed so that there are men who can benefit from them. This does not mean that all men do it, but we have an added value, especially as far as the concept of authority as a reference is regarded.

When I’ve talked about gender-based violence my words have had more weight and credibility than those of many women with more experience and knowledge. Not to mention that delegating certain elements of care and affection to the woman and profiting from this situation without ever questioning why something doesn’t work is an injustice that we cannot allow neither as a society nor as men. There should be no situation where a man doesn’t have to take responsibility for the simple fact of being one.

How do you deal with this in your private life?

I think we, as men, need to resign our privileges and to take on our responsibilities. From a personal point of view there is nothing my wife and I have in common that is not the responsibility of both of us.

Equality needs to be a value and not only an arithmetic operation. People are understanding that equality is equating, that is to adopt a similar position before a reference that, moreover, would be a masculine one. The evolution of society has tended to bring the women to the men’s place but not the other way around. This situation makes it easy for equality as a value to exist in similar circumstances, but if we don’t do a transfer in the contrary sense we are strengthening the male model and giving it legitimacy.

We need to transmit feminine references to men and to act in the name of equality.

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Chronicles from Juárez

ciudad juarez

For Ciudad Juárez 2010 ended with more than 3,000 violent deaths. The rate of murders in the city, adjoining with the United States, raised considerably during the last years until being one of the highest in the world since it became the scenario of brutal confrontations between drug cartel gangs of Juárez and the close Sinaloa.

More than 28,000 people have died in Mexico during the last four years since president Felipe Calderón began an offensive against the drug cartels in December 2006 by sending to the city 10 thousand soldiers with the objective of closing the door to the 90 percent of the cocaine towards the United States with the use of military force. According to many, militarization would be responsible of the increase of violence.

Among the main targets the opposing cartels members, police officers, social activists (the last one Susana Chávez, 36 years old, poet fighting for the clearing up of the well-known female homicides in that border, killed and mutilated of one hand last week) and journalists.

Besides the war among the cartels, corruption (with police officers who round off their starvation wages protecting the bosses), perverted effect of delocalization and an urban extremely degraded area with one high school for 500 thousand inhabitants, reign in the city.

This is where Sandra Rodríguez and Luz del Carmen Sosa work as reporters at El Diario de Juárez. In 2010 they were awarded with the Reporteros del Mundo prize (in memory of Julio Fuentes and Julio Anguita, correspondents of the Spanish awarding newspaper El Mundo and who were killed in Afghanistan and Irak respectively) for “having shown an extraordinary courage in every sense, signing their chronicles in spite of knowing that they put their lives at a risk” and for being “firm defenders of the freedom of expression in their country, denouncing the fight among cartels for the control of drug, the indiscriminate murders of women and the general atmosphere of violence going on in the streets of Mexico”.

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Meet Nadia Ghulam


Farmer, stock-breeder, wells builders, water seller, owner of a bicycle’s repair-shop, Mullah’s assistant and occasional religious police, even cook for one day for a group of Talibans. All this was Nadia Ghulam during the ten years she was a boy. The happy little girl with her long circling skirt she had been had left the day a bomb had hit her house in Kabul burning the 60 percent of her body. She was eight years old then, or at least that’s what she guesses. Nadia doesn’t remember very well those two years she spends her time half inside and half outside the hospital. “But I do remember Mujahideen bursting into the houses taking us in –and even into the hospital- and forcing us to leave, the pain of my wounds, the fact of being homeless and always starving and the voice of the bombs”.

While her mother is always with her two younger sisters, her elder brother and her father live with an aunt of theirs or they sort out their lives. When they have no house and Nadia is out of the hospital, they go to people’s houses, first families, then strangers, or sleep in shelters. “It is curious, and also a little sad”, she says between bites of melanzane (aubergines) alla parmigiana I then find out not to be only an Italian but also an Afghan typical dish (the latter use goose cheese instead of mozzarella and parmesan). “Here in Spain I read Anne Frank’s diary. She explained how it was I don’t know whose birthday, that they had made a cake and then had it…I kept thinking: unbelievable. Because during war there are no cakes”, she says. “She also explained they used to have vegetables and we never did”.

Nadia is around ten years old. Her father tells her and her mother that her teenage brother, Zelmai, was shot in the streets and is not working in Pakistan as they had been thinking for more than a year. “I then understood why my father had little by little stopped living. He was his pride”. Almost simultaneously Soraya, her doctor’s assistant, tells her that with the arrival of the Taliban women won’t be able to work. “I thought, so what am I going to do? If my father is ill, my brother isn’t here and my mother is like that, what are we going to eat? I have always been a person who relieves in her own things and who doesn’t like other people’s help. I say, if this person works and has his things, why can’t I have mine? I cannot be waiting for the others, you know?”

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Meet Tamara Adrián

t adrián

Lawyer and professor of commercial law at the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello (UCAB) and at Universidad Central de Venezuela (UCV), in 2004 Adrián was the first Venezuelan citizen appealing to the Constitutional Assembly for the recognition of her identity. In spite of having a gender reassignment surgery in 2002 in Thailand she still legally has a male’s name, the name she was born with. Until today she has not received any answer on her petition yet. On 18 October 2010 Adrián postulated as judge of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice with the side objective of also “claiming transsexuals’ rights and testing the tolerance of a country with homophobic institutions”. The resolution on her postulation (she has already passed the first selection phase) will probably be public by the end of the year. She is a lesbian, a feminist, a member of the Latin American and Caribbean Region of the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA-LAC board) and the founder of the DIVERLEX association (Difference and Equality through the Law) working for the implementation of legal measures protecting sex and gender related human rights.

From a legal point of view what is the situation of transsexuals and transgender in Venezuela?

We simply don’t exist. There exist no public politics for the recognition of one’s identity, nor for medical treatment or protection against discrimination in all fields: labour, studies, etc.

You underwent sex-reassignment surgery in 2002 but your ID still says you have a male’s name. What does this mean in your daily life?

For some day-to-day activities, like the gym or the grocery store, I use a fake ID, always letting civil servants know it is and that they can denounce me if they want to, which until now no one has. Anyway, my transsexuality is not visible so also when using my real ID people generally think that there is some mistake behind the name they see. At the same time I am a well known person in my country and that makes everything easier. But for the majority of the transsexuals in Venezuela daily life is not easy at all, that is why I am carrying out this struggle, for civil responsibility and for the respect of human rights, so other people in the future can achieve their constitutional right to the ‘self-determination’ more easily.

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