Madhavi Rajadhyaksha,TNN | Dec 12, 2013


English: IPSF HIV/AIDS Campaign Logo

English: IPSF HIV/AIDS Campaign Logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


MUMBAI: In July 2001, four staffers from a non-governmental organization in Lucknow working to fight HIV/AIDS among men who have sex with men (MSM) were arrested and charged with the stringent IPC Section 377 (unnatural offences) and for sale obscene material among other offences. They were jailed for 47 days, their HIV/AIDS- related material seized and the offices of their NGOs Naz Foundation and Bharosa Trust sealed.

Health workers in Chennai, Bangalore and Delhi endured similar harassment, noted Human Rights Watch in its publication “Epidemic of Abuse-Police Harassment of HIV/AIDS outreach workers”. The document highlights a bitter reality of India’s battle against HIV/AIDS—fighting the disease becomes an uphill task when criminality is attached to vulnerable communities.

Much of these challenges associated with fighting HIV/AIDS were overcome thanks to the Delhi High Court judgement decriminalising same-sex relations in 2009. But they have been resurrected with the Supreme Court’s judgement on Wednesday. Activists fear the judgment will pose a huge setback for HIV/AIDS.

“It will have a devastating impact on the fight against HIV/AIDS. In the early days it was very hard to get MSMs to health units as they feared police action. This changed only after the Delhi HC judgement,” says Dr. L Ramakrishnan of Solidarity and Action Against the HIV Infection in India. He pointed out that the apex court’s judgement was likely to give legal backing to the biases of healthcare professionals and could fuel their discriminatory attitudes.

The issue is particularly pressing as MSMs are a high-risk category for HIV/AIDS. Roughly seven per cent of the estimated 25 lakh gay persons in India are HIV-infected, according to the Central government. Their marginalisation in healthcare was in fact the basis of the Public Interest Litigation filed by the Naz Foundation in the Delhi HC.

The National AIDS Control Organization too had admitted in its affidavit that Section 377 acted as a “serious impediment” to successful public health interventions. “Those in the high risk group are mostly reluctant to reveal same-sex behaviour due to fear of law enforcement agencies, keeping a large section invisible and unreachable and thereby pushing the cases of infection underground making it very difficult for public health workers to even access them,” stated theNACO affidavit. It had pointed out that social stigma forced many MSMs to deny their behaviour, thereby marrying or having sex with female partners and subsequently putting them too at the risk of HIV/AIDS.

Ashok Row Kavi of the Humsafar Trust too echoed these concerns. “It will put us in grave trouble. But the NACO’s progressive schemes have helped the community and we will continue that work,” he said.

The negative impact

* Gay persons would be afraid to approach healthcare systems as they could be reported under Section 377.

* The judgment would make healthcare workers who work with LGBTQ (lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender, queer) communities vulnerable to police harassment for ‘promoting’ illegality.

* Social stigma could force MSMs to deny their sexual behaviour, marry women and have sex with female partners putting them at the risk of HIV/AIDS.


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