Zambia's Anti-Gay Obsession Is Worsening Its HIV Epidemic

One prominent traditional chief recently called for "gay people to be caged."

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An HIV-AIDS patient places her hand on her forehead during a visit by a caregiver at her home in Matero township on the outskirts of Lusaka, Zambia on April 17, 2012. (Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters)

One of Africa's leading human rights activists was arrested on April 7 after appearing on live television -- when police officers reportedly "stormed the station" and "tried to stop the interview," reports The Guardian and BBC. Paul Kasonkomona's crime: "Inciting the public to take part in indecent activities." Kasonkomona called on the government to decriminalize same-sex relations on live television.

Welcome to Zambia, the landlocked southern African nation slightly larger than Texas. Zambia boasts vast mineral wealth but remains "one of thepoorest and least developed nations on earth."Human rights are also a significant problem. Zambia is one of at least 37 of 54 African nations that prohibit same-sex relations -- and it "is among the more hostile political climates," adds The Guardian. All consensual adult same-sex acts are criminalized, and convictions are harsh -- a minimum sentence of 15 years in prison. Zambia does not permit the advocacy of rights for its besieged lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community. South Africa is the only African nation that offers legal protections for gays and same-sex marriage.

All consensual adult same-sex acts are criminalized in Zambia, and convictions are harsh -- a minimum sentence of 15 years in prison.

Kasonkomona was held for four days, pleaded not guilty, and was released on bail on Thursday, April 11. The case comes at the same there has been " a frightening increase in violations of LGBT people's rights " in Zambia, according to one human rights group. The openly gay and HIV positive activist says police denied him access to "his tuberculosis and antiretroviral drugs [and] put his life at risk." Kasonkomona's plight illustrates the deeply religious and conservative nation's obsessive anti-gay animus -- which is complicating its fight against HIV/AIDS.

Sub-Saharan Africa is home to two-thirds of all people living with HIV/AIDS. Zambia in particular has the misfortune of being home to " one of the world's most devastating HIV and AIDS epidemics," reports the advocacy group AVERT:

"More than one in every seven adults in the country is living with HIVand life expectancy at birth has fallen to just 49 years. ... Overall HIV prevalence was 13.5 percent [and] has been reported as high as 25 percent in some urban areas. ... Unlike in some countries, HIV in Zambia does not primarily affect the most underprivileged. Infection rates are very high among wealthier people and the better educated."

The "devastating epidemic" has become a significant obstacle to Zambia's economic development. The loss of workers and production hours, especially around agriculture, has increased "stubbornly high poverty rates" and food insecurity, reports the Central Intelligence Agency.

To complicate matters: Some researchers believe Zambia -- and other African nations -- is home to an escalating and often untreated HIV epidemic among gay and bisexual men. Few epidemiological studies have been conducted among gay and bisexual men in Africa thanks to the widespread criminalization of same-sex acts across the continent. But infection rates are often two to three times the general population, "and in Zambia, a 2006 study revealed a self-reported HIV prevalence of 33 percent" among gay and bi men, reports PEPFAR, the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.

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Rod McCullom has produced and written for ABC News, NBC, Scientific American, and The Los Angeles Times. His site is rod20.com

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