This is an expanded version of a letter to the editor of the Jamaica Observer by Jamaican activist Maurice Tomlinson. The additions, by Tomlinson and blog editor Colin Stewart, are italicized and in brackets.
“[In Jamaica] dogma trumps everything, including public health.” This borrowed statement pretty much sums up the current situation with regard to Jamaica’s HIV response.
UNAIDS and our minister of health have made it clear that the most vulnerable populations — sex workers, drug users, men who have sex with men (MSM), youth, etc. — are not being reached with anti-HIV interventions because of outdated laws and policies. And we know that HIV is bridging from these groups into the general population.
[An estimated 33 percent of Jamaican MSM are HIV-infected and 60 percent of MSM in Jamaica also have sex with women, according to Peter Figueroa, former director of Jamaica’s national HIV/STI program and professor of public health at the University of the West Indies.]
However, in order to keep the powerful religious fundamentalists happy, we retain antiquated laws and enshrine homophobic practices.
[Jamaica’s “buggery” law, inherited from the days of the British Empire, provides for up to 10 years in prison for anal intercourse. That law is not actively enforced, but it contributes to homophobic Jamaican-on-Jamaican violence, both rhetorical and physical.]
Funders are paying attention. They will send their scarce resources to countries that are responding to the health needs of the entire population.
[UNAIDS and PEPFAR may well do this if Jamaica and the Caribbean does not get its act together with regard to the punitive laws — a fact that’s known by Caribbean leaders, who are almost entirely dependent on external support for their HIV interventions. However, the apparent expendability of the small LGBTI populations is one reason the governments are refusing to act. There is also the incredible strength of the churches that prevent any forward movement on LGBTI rights. The most palpable example of funding being redirected is the case in Uganda, where an entire HIV programme was shut down because of funds being withdrawn due to the homophobic nature of the organizers.]
Meanwhile, we have to struggle to find — or divert from critical programmes, such as education — ever-scarcer U.S. dollars in order to support our HIV response.
[PEPFAR (the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) recently announced that, as a result of a policy shift, it has ended funding for CHART (the Caribbean HIV/AIDS Regional Training Programme) and other funded health training partnerships, effective Sept. 1.]
While rich church leaders all hold visas and travel to inclusive societies for medical care, etc., they doom the rest of the population to life in an increasingly dangerous, unhealthy, and polarised society.
The Lawyers Christian Fellowship (LCF) must be joking if they expect Caribbean governments to continue financing CHART.
[See the RJR News article, “Lawyers Christian Fellowship wants to know if Caribbean Govts will pick up funding shortfall for CHART.”]
After all, LCF had effectively doomed CHART by insisting that someone who does not share the organisation’s values be retained as its head.
[LCF objected to the University of West Indies decision to fire Brendan Bain in May as CHART leader after it became clear that he did not recognize that anti-gay laws limit the access of LGBT people to health care and thus tend to increase HIV infection rates by pushing the HIV epidemic underground. Bain was reinstated in June when he won an injunction against his firing until a court decides on his lawsuit. A hearing in that case is scheduled for October.]
It is time for the LCF and all other religious fundamentalists to put their money where their mouth is. Let them dip into the offering plates to fund our HIV response. The Government must take action and put a stop to these selfish fundamentalists who are threatening our entire society.