Seeking a new strategy for fighting AIDS in Cameroon

Published: February 13, 2013

Goal is to help sexually diverse people in Douala who are criminalized

Private and public experts in Douala, Cameroon, are putting their heads together to seek an effective new strategy for combating HIV/AIDS among key populations, including LGBT people and sex workers.

Those populations need such a new strategy, because HIV prevalence is an estimated 24.2 percent among men who have sex with men and 36.0 percent among female sex workers in Douala — compared to about 4 percent in the general population, according to a study conducted for CARE Cameroon.

On Feb. 6, a workshop aimed at developing the new approach got under way, including representatives of Douala public officials, the private sector, and the country’s civil society organizations. The initiative is sponsored by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) under the authority of Dr. Fritz Ntone Ntone.

Its goals are to:

Develop strategies to prevent the transmission of HIV and STIs among key populations;

Improve access to services, treatment and care for key populations;

Improve respect for human rights;

Reduce stigma and discrimination affecting key populations’ access to basic services; and

Strengthen local leadership in Douala in order to support and sustain interventions for key populations.

Marcel Mbela, representing the permanent secretary of the National Committee on the Fight against AIDS in Cameroon, emphasized that the project is in sync with the country’s priorities:

“One of the axes of the National Strategic Plan is universal access to prevention for priority target groups. When we speak of universal access, we believe that everyone should have access to services, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race etc.”

The fight against HIV/AIDS in Cameroon faces major challenges, including the criminalization of homosexual practices and sex work, which is a barrier to universal access.

As noted by Rose Tchwenko, deputy executive director of CARE Cameroon:

“We should not continue to play ostrich with our head in the sand. In the project that I coordinate, we have not been able to deliver leaflets with the image of two men because that would endanger the beneficiaries, who could end up in jail. To the extent that we do not address issues related to the law, we will end up with a high prevalence [of HIV/AIDS]. “

Opinions are divided on this sensitive issue. Dr. Dina Nfon Priso, second vice-president of the National Coordination Body, argues:

“Environmental interventions must address substantive issues. One cannot consider setting up services that will not be used because the environment does not allow them.”

But Dr. Noel Essomba, coordinator of the technical group for the Littoral region, restates the position of the nation’s health officials:

“We do not have the skills to work on issues of law. Our discussion should be strictly limited to the medical field.”

Suffice it to say that the debate will be heated between representatives of civil society, mayors and health authorities, but all need to know that in the three working days allotted to the workshop, they must develop an action plan that meets the needs of key populations of the City of Douala and that incorporates international recommendations in the fight against AIDS. All this, while remaining in strict compliance with the laws in force in Cameroon!

Success is not a foregone conclusion. However, in the words of Bashir N’Daw of Dakar, UNDP regional adviser on human rights and law:

“This project represents an opportunity for the City of Douala to create a legal environment that allows a blow to be struck against HIV and show that the fight against HIV can be won at the local level. The action plan of the project must, first, improve access to HIV services for everyone, without discrimination and based on legal authority, and secondly, respond to the the specific needs of key populations, especially people living with HIV, men who have sex with men, and sex workers.”

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