It’s been shown that men who have sex with men (MSM) living in African countries that outlaw same-sex sexuality are at far higher risk of HIV infection.

The study by Carrie Lyons of Johns Hopkins University found that these men are almost at five times higher risk of having HIV compared to those in African countries in which homosexuality is not illegal.

The research was presented at the 23rd International AIDS Conference which was held virtually from 6 to 10 July. According to Aidsmap, Lyons surveyed 8,113 MSM living in ten sub-Saharan countries who were also tested for HIV.

While 19% of the men overall tested positive for HIV, the difference between those who live in countries that criminalise same-sex sexuality and those that don’t was striking.

In the countries where homosexuality is legal, 8% of these sampled were infected with HIV. But this jumped to 20% in countries with some criminalisation, and 52% in countries with “severe criminalisation”.

The countries included in the research were Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea-Bissau and Rwanda (no criminalisation), Cameroon, Senegal, Togo and eSwatini (criminalisation – less than eight years in prison) and Gambia and Nigeria (severe criminalisation – more than ten years in prison).

“This study provides clear evidence showing that criminalisation of same-sex sexual activity is consistently associated with an increased risk for HIV among MSM in sub-Saharan African countries,” reported Aidsmap. “This relationship is stronger in those countries with more punitive laws. Additionally, the legal barriers to the operation of civil society organisations mean that they are not able to operate where they are most needed.”

It’s widely accepted that the criminalisation of homosexuality and non-binary gender expression is not only a human rights issue in and of itself but also affects access to health, HIV and other services. By forcing MSM who fear arrest and discrimination underground, these individuals are less likely to seek HIV related prevention and treatment services.

“Decriminalisation of consensual same-sex sexual practices is necessary to optimise HIV prevention efforts and ultimately address the HIV epidemic,” Lyons concluded in the report.

While there is some progress, Africa is one of the regions with the highest rate of criminalisation of MSM in the world, with around 30 countries outlawing same-sex sexual expression.

The East African nation of Sudan recently repealed the death penalty and the administration of 100 lashes for homosexuality but replaced these punishments with imprisonment of five years to life.

Article by Roberto Igual