Liberian Stakeholders Discuss Ways To End Stigma, Discrimination Against Key Populations and Vulnerable Groups
By: Necus M. Andrews
Liberia: The first ever national stakeholders symposium organized by the National AIDS Commission of Liberia (NAC) has taken place to discuss how the country can bring to an end, stigma and discrimination against members of key and vulnerable populations in the Country.
This is a strategy designed by NAC to put Liberia on par with countries in the world to reduce new HIV infections and subsequently end AIDS by 2030 as a public health threat.
The stigma and discrimination symposium was part of activities that marked the 2021 World AIDS Day, commemorated under the global Theme: “End Inequalities. End AIDS. End Pandemics and a national Theme: “Equal Opportunity For All…Let’s End AIDS In Liberia”.
The commission sees societal stereotyped stigma and discrimination against key and vulnerable populations which include members of the LGBTI community and persons living with HIV as storming block for effort to end AIDS.
In Liberia, it is illegal to engage in sexual relationship with people of the same sex. This is regulated in the Penal Law, Section 14.74, and is criminalized as ‘voluntary sodomy’ both for men and women. The offence is regarded as a ‘minor misdemeanour, and can result in one year’s imprisonment.
Although the law already criminalizes same-sex relationship, there are constant attempts by the Liberian legislature to make it even more repressive. In In 2012, a Bill was passed in the Senate as an amendment to the Domestic Relations Law to ban same-sex marriage, making it a first degree felony offence, punishable by imprisonment for up to five years.
In March 2020, a member of the legislature again proposed another bill to toughen the Liberian Penal Code by increasing the minimum charge level for the offenses of aggravated involuntary sodomy, involuntary sodomy, and voluntary sodomy.
Human rights advocates are worried that the legislation if passed, will serve as a direct threat to any human rights protection of the LGBTI community and other vulnerable groups in Liberia.
In her opening remarks at the start of the symposium in Monrovia on November 30, 2021, Madam Theodosia S. Kolee, Chairperson of the National AIDS Commission of Liberia (NAC) said ensuring an enabling environment that protects the human rights of all, including persons living with HIV and key populations should be a collective focus.
Madam Kolee said Liberia as part of the global community should not allow stigma and discrimination to stand in the way of the Country’s newly developed National HIV Strategic Plan II, a five-year roadmap document designed to fast track effort towards ending AIDS by 2030.
“Doing so will defeat our purpose; we will be left behind other countries in achieving the 2030 agenda if this happens. This makes me to agree with UNAIDS that the time is now to make some noise around zero discrimination by speaking to prevent discrimination from standing in the way of achieving our ambitions goals and dreams,” Madam Kolee said.
She said “reducing stigma and discrimination will mean allowing people to feel confident and secured in accessing and adhering to life saving treatment at health facilities in line with the universal human rights standards void of being denied based on health status and sexual sexuality. That is why we are particularly thankful for the presence of heads of relevant institutions and policymakers in this hall…. if they do not act, our efforts will be undermined”.
The AIDS Commission boss told stakeholders at the symposium that, “as the world aims to end AIDS by 2030, Liberia cannot afford to be left behind; indicating that the 2021 World AIDS Day is an opportunity to begin highlighting some, if not all, issues critical to achieving the country’s goal such as stigma and discrimination. We need to ensure a Liberia where all people, regardless of their sexual identity, choices or health status have access to relevant HIV prevention services.”
Madam Kolee believes that “Liberia as member of the Global Partnership for Action to Eliminate All Forms of HIV-related stigma and discrimination, must do everything by ensuring that no new HIV-related discriminatory laws, regulations and policies are passed, existing HIV-related discriminatory laws, regulations and policies are repealed, 90% of Persons living with HIV and members of the key population have access to justice and can challenge rights violations wherein they can get equal legal protection, and no one is denied health services based on his/her perceived or real HIV status or sexual identity.”
Atty. Edrick Naoh, Assistant Justice Minister for Administration and Public Safety uprightly believes that members of the LGBTI (Lesbians, Gays, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex) community exit in Liberia; and people in the country need to accept this reality and suffering from various health complications.
In 2018 the Integrated Bio-Behavioral Surveillance Survey (IBBSS) conducted in Liberia revealed a high HIV infection rate among key population groups. This shows that men who have sex men account for 37.9% of HIV prevalence, 9.6% for People Who Inject Drugs (PWIDs), female sex worker at 16.7% among others.
Speaking on behalf of the Ministry of Justice at the symposium, Assistant Minister Noah said the Constitution of Liberia (Chapter 3) provides for the protection of the rights for all of citizens, and the country as a signatory to other international treaties is also under obligation to provide protection for all, void of discrimination. He was however quick to recognize implementation of the laws as problem being experienced over the years in protecting the rights of people.
“When we talk about key population we need to open our eyes and face the reality. There are people among us that are members of the key populations that need to be captured. Sometimes they are overlooked because they are far from us, but you get to realize that they exit when they become your relatives or close friends, then you know that people need to be protected, Atty. Noah said.”
He told stakeholders at the symposium that, “We have to be realistic because if we don’t address their issues now, things will be out of control, and then tomorrow we will not be able to achieve the goals we have to achieve—and I think the legislature plays a key role in this”.
“Those people that are infected in the key populations are Liberians and they need to be accommodated. We need to train law enforcement officers to understand that persons living with HIV and key populations have rights, and those rights need to be protected, Atty. Noah urged.”
The Justice Ministry official said: “Most of us are Christians, and it is not in our terrain to outcast people because of their conditions. What will our society be if we decide to eliminate people because of their disability and people having issues with their genetic makeup? Will we throw them away? We can’t…we need to look at stigma and discrimination as a bottom to top approach to ensure an enabling environment for all”.
He expressed the Ministry’s commitment to ensuring the protection of all people including members of the key populations and persons living with HIV, calling on the legislature to pass specific HIV laws to ensure protection for key and vulnerable groups.
Mr. Jojoe Baysah, Vice President for the Liberia Network of Persons Living with HIV (LiNeP+) said until HIV-related stigma and discrimination are holistically dealt with through a strong political commitment and support to persons infected and affected by the virus, it would be difficult to achieve the 95-95-95 target by AIDS by 2030.
Mr. Baysah who has lived with HIV for more than 20 years now, wants policymakers to consider providing care and support for families of people living with HIV because they are not strong enough to live with associated stigma and discrimination.
“We are talking about stigma and discrimination, we only talk about individuals and we are not talking about the family members. Our family members especially our children who are not HIV positive are always the target, they need support from the government”.
“If we don’t fight stigma and discrimination at the highest level holistically by recognizing people from the key populations and making people to account for their actions, we will not achieve the goal of testing people for HIV, placing positive people on treatment and ensuring that those on treatment have a suppressed virus load, Mr. Baysah said.”
Mr. Evans L. Adofo, Executive Director of Stop AIDS in Liberia (SAIL), stressed the need for the government of Liberia to own the country’s response to HIV by demonstrating committed political will.
“It is a looming danger for the country’s national response to be placed in the hands of donor partners. This suggests that the day these donor partners get tired and stop funding HIV works in the country, we will roll back to the ugly past which could undermine our gains, Mr. Adofo said.