By: Stephen K. McGill, HIV/Human Rights Activist
In Liberia, it is illegal to engage in a 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 offense is regarded as a ‘minor misdemeanor’ but can result in one year’s imprisonment. Although the law already criminalizes same-sex relationship, there are attempts for even more repressive legislation, making it a first-degree felony offense, punishable by imprisonment for up to five years.
An additional threat exists in common and widespread phenomenon of discriminatory behaviors targeting key populations, marginalized and vulnerable groups in the country. The existence of the Penal Law (Section 14.74) is hugely contributing to stereotyped discrimination against key population groups (Lesbians, Gays, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, Queer, (LGBTIQ, Persons living with HIV (PLHIV), Injecting Drug Users (IDUs), Sex workers (SW) among others. Violators of the rights of these people especially some law enforcement personnel and journalists often use Section 14.74 of the Penal Law as their reliance.
Over the years, these discriminatory behaviors have created a climate of intolerance and violence against these key populations and vulnerable groups. The stigma index report for Liberia has revealed that for many years now, the existence of the Penal Law has largely created barriers to healthcare services for these groups of people due to their sexual orientation, gender identity and health status. Such attitudes constrain these people’s ability or willingness to disclose different health issues bothering them for fear that they could be stigmatized or bullied.
Some healthcare service providers, civil representatives, law enforcement personnel, media personnel and religious leaders among others are discriminative or homophobic against these individuals seeking healthcare. This creates fear and denies them their rights to seek early treatment for specific health needs. As a result, many key populations and vulnerable groups’ community members seek healthcare services when they are terminally ill or their health conditions get worse; and when they even seek treatment they do not disclose who they are.
The reality is, these key populations and vulnerable people are disproportionally affected by HIV, the virus that causes the disease AIDS.
Liberia has a generalized HIV epidemic with reproductive aged population showing HIV prevalence of 2.1% (2013 LDHS), even though the UNAIDS’ 2022 Spectrum Estimates put it at 1.1%, with an estimated HIV population of 34,358. It is noteworthy that in 2018, an Integrated Bio-Behavioural Surveillance Survey (IBBSS) established that HIV prevalence is high among predominately key population sub-groups: 37.9% in Men who have sex with Men (MSM); 9.6% in People Who Inject Drugs (PWIDs), female sex workers, 16.7% and transgender accounting, 27.6%.
The IBBSS provides a critical need for policymakers and state actors to consider repealing or decriminalizing some of the existing laws, policies and regulations especially Section 14.74 of the Penal Law which is directly preventing key population groups from coming out to seek treatment.
As the global community prepares to end AIDS by 2030, Liberia cannot afford to be left behind, as such decriminalizing laws that are seen to be preventing the country’s progress of achieving should be considered in order to save lives. Indeed, this is a wake-up call for action; we as a country should act now.
Discrimination against key and vulnerable groups is birth out of misconceptions about the transmission of HIV and people’s sexual orientation and gender identity. Evidence has shown that in household and community settings, HIV-related stigma and discrimination can also manifest through family rejection and societal labeling, using the Penal Law as justification.
Decriminalization of the Penal Law at this time will show to the world that Liberia is committed to the Political Declaration it signed at the United Nations High Level meeting in 2016 to reduce new HIV infections, reduce AIDS-related deaths and eliminate HIV-related stigma and discrimination directed at key and vulnerable populations. Certainly, the time is now to decriminalize and save lives.
I am particularly in support of Madame Winnie Byanyima, UNAIDS’ Executive Director statement during the 2023 observance of Zero Discrimination Day that, “HIV criminalization is a violation of human rights and undermines our efforts to end AIDS. We have the evidence that when you repeal discriminatory and criminal laws which are driving people away from HIV prevention and treatment, then you save lives”.
The UNAIDS’ Executive Director in her statement also said, “Yet in that same year, the world took action, setting ambitious law reform targets to remove criminal laws that are undermining the HIV response and leaving key populations behind. Recognizing decriminalization as a critical element in the response, countries made a commitment that by 2025 less than 10% of countries would have punitive legal and policy environments that affect the HIV response”.
The time is now in Liberia for us to decriminalize discriminatory laws so that the country can focus on finding solutions to the health needs of people who are directly infected and affected; we must desist from bullying. They are who they are, and they will remain who they are. The general critical issue for consideration is that if these people are not given the enabling environment to seek healthcare, the entire country is at risk because their health is tied to our health.
In order to end AIDS in Liberia comes 2030 as a public health threat, the government of Liberia through its policymakers and relevant actors needs to put in place consensus for law reforms that provide an environment free of societal stereotyping and rejection to allow individual, households, community, healthcare and justice settings in line with the goal three (3) of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which talks about wellbeing for all.
It is my hope that this article will fall on fertile soil so that the lives of people who are experiencing health complications be saved and relieved to live in dignity. This, will demonstrate Liberia’s political and human rights commitments made to the world toward the elimination of all forms of stigma and discrimination at all times.
Yes, the time to decriminalize discriminatory laws to save lives is now, break the tides on discriminatory laws on our books to ensure that decisive achievement.
About the writer:
Stephen K. McGill is an HIV and Human Rights Defender and,
He’s a Co-founder of One of Liberia’s First Ever HIV and AIDS service-providing organizations, Stop AIDS in Liberia (SAIL) Founded in 1998.
Stephen is a Liberian currently pursuing His Master in Public Health (MPH) at the Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia, United States of America.