Maria Nantale, an activist in Mbale, Uganda, has developed a new strategy to reach those most at risk of HIV, according to the Guardian.
Twice weekly, Nantale, the director of the Eastern Region Women’s Empowerment Organisation, holds events in the eastern Ugandan town. Along with a small team of nurses, a lab technician, and counsellor, she publicly tests people for HIV, and lets them know their status.
More than 1.4 million people in the country live with HIV, and the stigma, particularly for people who are queer, is ever-present.
The public outreach events are intended to target those most at-risk from HIV — people who are LGBTQ, drug users, and sex workers.
In Uganda, where homophobia is rampant, Nantale reportedly realised that offering tests to everyone, instead of singling out people from these marginalized demographics, goes a long way in combating public perceptions that LGBTQ people are “diseased”.
She says that once a few brave community members volunteer to undergo the simple test (it involves a needle prick to the finger, which is then tested), others are more enthusiastic to take part.
After someone’s HIV positive status is announced, they are then counseled in front of other community members too. “Whenever people here have HIV, they run in the opposite direction. That’s what the counselling is for. Telling them it will all be fine,” Nantale says.
Under Uganda’s Anti-Homosexual Bill, anyone found guilty of same-sex relations would automatically be sentenced to imprisonment for life. Amnesty International says this is “institutionalise[s] hatred and discrimination against LGBTI people in Uganda.”
It was recently widely reported that the government planned to re-introduce an anti-homosexuality bill, which would impose the death penalty in cases of gay sex. However, the government has denied this.
Uganda continues to be dangerous for LGBTQ people, however, who experience violence such as mob attacks, and targeted killings. Earlier this month, LGBTQ activist Brian Wasswa, who was openly gay and gender non-conforming, was fatally attacked in his home in Jinja, Uganda.
A recent study found that homophobic laws in Africa are linked to low HIV testing rates. Men who have sex with men (MSM), the report found, are less likely to be tested or know their HIV status if they live in an country that criminalizes same-sex behavior.
Despite improvements related to increased HIV testing among MSM in Africa, researchers say a lack of HIV status awareness and access to antiretroviral drugs means additional efforts are needed to reach the UNAIDS target of 90% of all people living with HIV to know their status by 2020. According to UNAIDS, in 2018, 84% of people living with HIV in Uganda knew their status.